Two proposed logging projects in the Seeley Lake area are the latest in a statewide push towards more use of a collaborative federal and state timber harvest program.
The Lolo National Forest wants to partner with the State of Montana on a pair of so-called Good Neighbor Authority projects to log about 5,000 acres of Forest Service land near Seeley Lake.
In 2014 Congress gave National Forests the authority to let state agencies do some forest management work on federal land to help reduce fuel loads and curb destructive wildfires and disease.
"We need to think about these landscapes in totality, not by just individual, administrative boundaries."
That’s Vicki Christiansen, chief of the Forest Service, in an interview with NPR earlier this month.
"So the good neighbor authority is a great tool to leverage expertise across boundaries. But we need all hands on deck, quite frankly if we’re gonna turn this trajectory around in this nation," she says.
In recent years the U.S. Forest Service has seen its budget for land management and fire mitigation work severely cut as the agency spends more and more fighting fires.
Quinn Carver, the Lolo National Forest’s new Seeley Lake district ranger, says the Forest is asking for state help in two areas northeast and northwest of town. Both of these areas are vulnerable following the 2007 Jocko fire and 2017’s Rice Ridge Fire, which surged within striking distance of Seeley Lake.
"These two in particular are key areas."
The Westside Bypass and Kozy by the Fire projects would reduce fuel loads, make future fires that might come through more manageable, add resources to an understaffed Forest Service and give firefighters ample room to work safely, Carver says.
Good Neighbor authority would mean Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation would plan and conduct the logging, with the Forest Service handling the environmental review process.
The value of the projects, Carver says, goes beyond protecting homes in and around Seeley Lake.
"You gotta look at the trees as dollar bills out there."
Carver says the 5 to 6 million board feet* of harvested trees will be particularly appealing to Pyramid Mountain Lumber, a local mill. There will be a competitive bidding process, likely with lots of offers, but he says Pyramid is vital to the area.
"We’ve got to keep that mill in function. If you lose a mill in your town, you’ll never get 'em back."
Kristin Baker-Dickinson, the Montana DNRC’s Clearwater Unit Manager, says using Good Neighbor Authority is part of Gov. Bullock’s "Forests in Focust" plan, which prioritizes, "Emphasizing how important it is to us that the mill infrastructure that remains in the state of Montana stays in place."
In Montana, the state and federal government hope to harvest a total of 15 to 30 million board-feet of timber per year using Good Neighbor Authority between now and 2022. At the upper end, that’s about a fifth of all the timber that was harvested on federal land in Montana in 2017.
"It’s about increasing the pace and scale of restoration on the landscape," Baker-Dickinson says.
Critics of Good Neighbor Authority worry it could give the state too much say over land that belongs to the national public.
But Baker-Dickinson says about half of Montana’s forest acreage faces threats from insects or disease, and both projects proposed in the Seeley Lake area are in “priority landscapes” designated by the Lolo National Forest. The state and government agree here, she says.
"This is a true partnership. This isn’t the DNRC trying to tell the federal government what to do, or vice versa."
Baker-Dickinson and district ranger Quinn Carver both say the good neighbor authority program may start to work with other actors in the future too, like tribes and counties.
More details and a timeline on the Westside Bypass and Kozy by the Fire projects are forthcoming.
*CORRECTION: This initial draft of this story expressed the amount of timber to be harvested in "acre feet," it has been corrected to board feet.