Public comment ends this week on a Forest Service project near Whitefish which proposes to use so-called “good neighbor authority” to collaborate with the State of Montana. It’s a new approach that could mark a shift in which parties get a say in managing national forests.
The Taylor Hellroaring project proposes to harvest about 1,000 acres of timber outside Whitefish to reduce the risk of wildfire, while adding dozens of miles of new trails to the area.
To take all those trees, the project also uses a Forest Service program authorized under the 2014 Farm Bill that allows the state to work on federal land.
As more intense blazes scorch the west, this program, Good Neighbor Authority, aims to help tackle a tricky problem with wildfires.
"They don’t stop at boundaries."
That’s Chip Weber, Flathead National Forest Supervisor. Good Neighbor Authority is supposed to allow the state and tribes to share resources to help federal forest managers get things done more efficiently. In this case, it means the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) will work directly on federal land to help with fuels operations.
"We’re really trying to increase the pace and scale of our restoration activities," Weber says.
He says this is particularly true for areas where there’s an opportunity to increase firefighter and public safety, and reap some ecological benefits. According to the environmental assessment, the Taylor Hellroaring project helps protect communication towers, properties where inhabited areas abut wildlands, and the Whitefish Mountain Resort. About 500 acres of the project involves forest thinning, and another 100 is clear cutting.
Good Neighbor Authority means the DNRC will help administer the timber sale. They’ll be able to use funds from the sales to do more work on national forest lands.
"What this does is it blurs the land lines," Weber says.
He says if the Forest Service works with the state, the whole can become more than the sum of its parts. He says good neighbor authority expands capacity, speeds things up and makes timber projects more effective.
"There’s a bunch of different ways that we’re working more thoroughly with the state, and I would say that’s gonna be extended or is being extended to the counties and the tribes in various ways that is around this concept of shared stewardship."
That concept fits in to a Forest Service strategy announced last year. It’s also part of Gov. Steve Bullock’s “Forests in Focus” plan for the state which got an update last fall. The DNRC credits Bullock’s approach with harvesting nearly 200 million board-feet of timber and retaining 3,000 forest jobs since the initiative began in 2014.
But Courtney Schultz, associate professor of forest and natural resource policy at Colorado State University, says the notion of shared stewardship complicates the question of who national forests are for. Do they belong to the American public as a whole, local communities, the state, or some mixture?
"One of the most fascinating things about shared stewardship is that it is kind of like a magic mirror, and everyone I talk to sees different things in it," Schultz says.
When Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber looks in that mirror, he sees a necessary approach that builds capacity and tackles complex issues that don’t abide by property lines. Plus, he says, in an era of budget cuts and resource shortages there’s a real need for for these kinds of partnerships.
Schultz agrees this could be part of the beauty of shared stewardship. But the concept’s not cut-and-dry; there’s danger too.
"Is shared stewardship gonna mean that we start prioritizing state-level interests or state agency interests over the national interest?"
Last month, the forester for the Northern Region of the Forest Service signed an agreement with the director of Montana DNRC to focus on shared stewardship and prioritize Good Neighbor Authority. This means more cooperation with the state on upcoming projects, but also working with forest collaborative groups, counties and communities.
"In Idaho and Montana, those states have been a priority for the administration to start the shared stewardship effort and are a little bit out in front," Schultz says.
In December of last year, President Trump issued an executive order asking the Department of Interior to increase timber harvest across the country by about 30 percent compared to 2017 levels.
Schultz says the volume of timber here and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest could help fulfill that mandate. The once-thriving Montana timber industry has been on the decline since the '80s, along with harvests on federal land. So for some locals, this push for more production could look like an opportunity.
"A program that’s focused exclusively on timber harvest is not gonna be the same thing as a program that’s focused on forest restoration," Schultz says.
She says land managers are actively figuring out what this focus could mean for forests across the state. And in this area in particular, local goals could look a lot different than national ones.
That’s creating a tension over the bottom line of forest management. Do we manage publicly-owned forests for getting as many trees out as we can, for the health of the ecosystem or do we balance both priorities?
"Maybe a more serious concern that some people have, that maybe the federal government is trying to in some way devolve power to the states and that that will mean that state-level priorities are gonna displace things that are in the national interest, in the national public interest," Schultz says.
The Taylor Hellroaring project is one initiative in one location. Between 2017 and next year, more than a dozen good neighbor authority projects treating a total of more than 5,000 acres are expected to be initiated in Montana. Maureen Bookwalter, with the Forest Service Northern Region, says the majority of those projects are in the wildland-urban interface or areas at high risk of insect infestation and disease. She says Montana and Idaho are nationwide leaders in this approach.
So this program is in its infancy, but it’s growing fast. And as these projects proliferate, the way national and state priorities interact will inform the image that stares back at us when we look at our national forests.