Less than a minute into the meeting, James Rokosch abruptly stepped forward from the audience to say, “I would like to ask you whether you ever intend to actually hold a public hearing to listen to the members of the public who would like to provide you input on matters of fire management and management of public resources like wilderness?”
Rokosch, a former Ravalli County Commissioner, was frustrated that Gianforte’s field hearing, while open to the public, did not feature an opportunity for public comment.
The Gianforte camp tells Montana Public Radio that accepting public comment wasn’t necessary since it was a field hearing and no congressional quorum was present.
Gianforte told Rokosch he’d be happy to hear from him at a later date.
“But today we’re here as an official congressional hearing," Gianforte said.
Rokosch interrupted. “So you don’t intend to have a public hearing …"
“So I appreciate you being here and I’d love to meet with you at a later time," Gianforte said.
That didn’t seem to satisfy Rokosch.
“Oh, well those of us who would have liked to have given you that input today, we’ll contact you and then wait for you to get back to us when we can actually provide you with public input," he said.
"Ok. Look forward to that," Gianforte responded.
With that, Rokosch and about 15 others walked out of the cramped, stuffy Ravalli County commissioners conference room in protest.
Gianforte proceeded with the hearing. His scheduled guests included Ravalli County Commissioner Jeff Burrows and Shawna Lagarza, the Forest Service’s national director of Fire and Aviation Management.
But it was retired Forest Service employee and management consultant Richard Stem who offered some of the most pointed critique of current forest management practices nationwide.
“Forty years from now someone’s going to look back and say, ‘What’d you do about this?'" he said. "And just standing by and putting the fires out, to me, personally is not acceptable.”
Stem, who’s Forest Service career spanned nearly three decades and included various leadership positions, singled out the agency’s Region One – Montana and Northern Idaho – for recently stepping up the scale and pace of forest restoration.
“However – I gotta put the ‘however’ in here – overall the agency has some real roadblocks to really stepping up this pace," Stem said.
Stem said one of those roadblocks is shrinking staffing levels.
“They have a lack of capacity and personnel and skills because they’ve lost a lot of that capacity over the last 15 years due to firefighting and some budget concerns," he said.
Stem said the underlying regulations guiding the National Environmental Policy Act are in desperate need of a tune up.
"A lot of this stuff has right now gotten very fuzzy over the years because of court mandates or whatever has happened," he said. "And what I believe right now is we just need to kind of need to clean the system and say ‘what’s working and what’s not?’ You don’t cut the public out, you don’t shortcut anything. What you do is you make it more effective and more modern.”
Ravalli County Commissioner Jeff Burrows agrees.
“When we've got 73 to 75-percent of our community is forest and we’re cranking out one project a year, it’s just not enough," Burrows said. "We’re not getting enough done. Sometimes if they get tied up in litigation we don’t get a project out that year. I think we need to increase the pace and scale however that is, whether it’s streamlining the NEPA process, more staff, however we get there, that’s what we need to do.”
Environmental groups point out they haven’t sued to stop a logging project on the Bitterroot National Forest in over a decade.
Washington D.C.-based Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management director Shawna Lagarza stressed the importance of collaboration, communication and active management of fuels on Forest Service lands:
“We need to work more together with our local communities about pre-fire, pre-planning, pre-attack plans, meetings, evacuation routes, who has your bags packed, are you ready to go if a fire comes in there and what kind of management are you going to do on your forests or your lands that are in that area," she said.
Outside, after the meeting concluded, Stevensville resident Marilyn Wolff vehemently disagreed with those who advocate for scaling back rules such as NEPA.
“You can’t cut your way out of this," she said. "Lightning is indiscriminate. I think we do what we can around communities with Wildland Urban Interface treatment.”
She also expressed disappointment that public testimony wasn’t accepted.
“You’re just talking to people that you’ve preselected to interview," she said. "That is recorded, but you need to hear from the locals on this information. And so far Gianforte hasn’t been meeting with the public.”
Before he left, I asked Congressman Gianforte, “To those who say, we’re in this situation because the forests have been managed by the federal government, we need to transfer these forests to state control, you would say what?"
“I don’t think it’s a matter of who holds the deed," Gianforte said. "I do not support deed-transfer to the state. Public lands must stay public lands. I am an advocate, as was expressed today, of more collaboration and more local management – not transfer of deed of these forests. Because I think people on the ground here locally, the county commissioners, local law enforcement, they know the real issues on the front lines.”