Daines, Gianforte say forest reforms will “blunt” lawsuits, streamline timber projects

From left to right, Rep. Greg Gianforte, Sen. Steve Daines, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke talk forest reform at the Lolo Peak fire camp during last summer’s wildfire season. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Montana’s Republican delegation to Congress on Wednesday praised provisions included in the 2018 federal spending bill that address forest management, including a partial overturning of the Cottonwood decision and efforts to streamline timber projects.

Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte said the reforms, which will also fund the U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting expenses from a separate account, represent a start in improving the health of the nation’s forests.

“What’s been going on has been called fire borrowing,” Gianforte said. “In bad fire years, most of the operating budget for the Forest Service gets consumed with fighting fires. Because we’re opening up disaster relief funds that are not part of the the existing Forest Service budget, it essentially increases the amount of dollars available to the Forest Service.”

Daines and Gianforte, along with Sen. Jon Tester who also praised the provisions in the omnibus bill, said funding forest fires like any other natural disaster will enable the Forest Service to direct its budget to forest management, including forest health and recreation.

Daines said the new provisions will also streamline projects by permitting new categorical exclusions for hazardous fuel reduction, meaning less paperwork stemming from environmental reviews.

It also includes a partial overturning of the so-called Cottonwood decision, a case that involved habitat critical to the survival of the Canada lynx in Montana. In that case, the Forest Service was found to be in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

“This is a decision that has been devastating for our timber industry in Montana,” Daines said. “By passing this (omnibus) bill, it reverses that decision. Unfortunately, fringe litigators, our radical environmental extremists, are stopping common-sense forest management projects that would help reduce the threat of wildfires.”

While the two Republican lawmakers view the provisions included in the omnibus bill as a step in the right direction, Gianforte said other needed reforms were left out, including those in his Resilient Federal Forests Act.

“It’s comprehensive forest management and it address the growing economic and environmental threats of catastrophic wildfires,” Gianforte said. “It streamlines environmental reviews so we can blunt the effect of these environmental extremists who have never seen a project they liked.”

Gianforte said his bill would also make it easier to remove dead trees, and would create a collaborative process that brings all stakeholders to the table but speeds up the approval process once a decision has been made.

It would also end what Gianforte described as frivolous lawsuits, and would add a “shot clock” to decision making under the National Environmental Policy Act.

“It passed the House nearly five months ago, but it’s been stuck with Sen. Chuck Schumer and the Senate Democrats are holding it up,” Gianforte said of his forest bill. “They’ve been obstructing the bill and I’m really urging the leaders in the Senate to bring that bill to a full vote and move it.”

Gianforte said he would continue pushing to get his Resilient Federal Forests Act through the Senate.

“The steps in the omnibus (bill) are good, but they’re not enough,” Gianforte said. “There’s more work we need to do to get back to start managing our forests. Although directionally correct, the measures in this omnibus do not go far enough to address the threat and devastating impacts of severe wildfires.”