Tuesday in Columbia Falls, Senator Steve Daines kicked off a series of three meetings in western Montana that he’s calling “Forest Management Reform Roundtables.”
Around the table were executives from three timber mills, county commissioners from Sanders, Lincoln and Mineral counties, and Montana leaders of The Wilderness Society, The Nature Conservancy, and the National Parks Conservation Organization.
Senator Daines kicked off the discussion by asking a front-line timber mill worker to talk about what it’s like to be trying to make a living in the industry now. Frank Mills works at the F.H. Stoltze timber mill in Columbia Falls.
"We’re questionable from week to week, what our jobs will be," said Mills. "That’s been the condition since July, and the guys over there, and the gals, they don't know in two or three months if they're going to have a job. They're just kind of winging it day to day, week to week."
Senator Daines says his goal is to increase logging in Montana and the western U.S. , and the freshman Republican from Bozeman says he’s looking for input to help him do that, while at the same time protecting the environment.
He said he has some specific objectives.
"I think one is, ensure the Forest Service has clear set targets to keep out forests healthy and our mills working," said Daines. "I also support the idea of incentivizing and rewarding collaborative based projects. We need to address the problem of obstructive litigation, it's holding up responsible and often times collaborative forest projects. I think if we don't ultimately fix the problem of litigation, we won't solve this problem of trying to manage our forests so we produce more healthy forests. We need to streamline the environmental review process and discourage these endless appeals that are not adding any value to the process. And I think what I've also heard with a lot of feedback across Montana is we need to change the way the Forest Service is funded on firefighting."
The conservation group leaders who were invited to the meeting didn’t endorse any of Daines’ objectives specifically, but all said they think that logging and environmental protection can co-exist, and that they're open to further collaborative efforts to make that happen. Neither they nor the logging company executives gave specific examples of what they’re willing to give up, or what they want the other side to provide or give up in return.
After more than an hour of those at the roundtable stating their values and aspirations, Frank Mills, the blue collar timber mill employee piped up.
"This has all been really good to hear from you folks, and it all sounds like there is a light there," said Mills. "What I want to take back over to that sawmill, because those guys are gonna ask me, what did they say? Which way are we going with that? Can I tell them that that light is closer than you really think? That we can grasp that or should I tell them that it's just the same gibberish? Seriously."
Senator Daines told Mills that if the logging industry and conservation groups aren’t talking and working on new ideas, there will be no light, no improvement.
In comments afterwards to reporters, Daines said his goal is to get a timber bill on President Obama’s desk by the end of the year. He said it’s going to need the support of the entire Montana Congressional delegation, but he’s not getting behind a collaborative forest management bill that Democratic Senator Jon Tester has been pushing for years now. That bill would expedite logging on three national forests in Western Montana, and would protect more than 700,000 acres of new wilderness.
"I look at pragmatically what I think can pass to get on the President’s desk, and I think there is a greater appetite now for something more comprehensive in nature that would affect all ten national forests in Montana, and other national forests across the western United States," said Daines. "That’s how I think we’ll build consensus to actually get a bill passed."
Senator Steve Daines brings his “Forest Management Reform Roundtable” discussion with invited guests to Missoula on Friday, they’ll be meeting at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation at 11:00 a.m. On Saturday Daines will meet in Bozeman, at Simms Fishing Products, also at 11:00 a.m.