Secretaries Zinke, Perdue look to expedite forest management to end summer fires

From left to right, Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, both Trump appointments, discuss the litigation and lack of forest management they partially blame for Montana’s worsening fire seasons. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

FLORENCE – The U.S. secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture are working to bring their departments closer together to remove fuel from the nation’s forests and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires, they said during a fire briefing on Thursday.

With the deadly Lolo Peak fire burning in the background, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said the wildfire season has grown longer and forest management needs to change.

“We can’t do anything about the weather, but we can do a few things about forest management,” Perdue said. “What Secretary Zinke and I – along with Congress – have to figure out is how to bring to bear the resources to manage these forests in a way that diminishes the possibility of these wildland fires in the future.”

Zinke and Perdue, both appointed by President Donald Trump, joined Montana Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte at a fire camp positioned within view of the Bitterroot Mountains, where the 34,184-acre Lolo Peak fire has burned for more than a month.

The fire is one of several burning in the state and prompted the evacuation of 1,000 surrounding homes while filling the Missoula and Bitterroot valleys with unhealthy levels of smoke.

Zinke said fires like Lolo Peak have become too common across Montana and other Western states. The lack of forest management, fueled in part by “frivolous” lawsuits filed by environmental groups, is partially to blame, the delegation of Republican leaders said.

“The issue before us is how we put the firefighters out of business by looking at preparation first, making sure we have healthy forests, and going back to reduce the fuel so we don’t have these catastrophic events year after year,” Zinke said. “We need to give forest managers the resources on the front line, the flexibility, and get rid of the lawsuits so they can do their job.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke talks with Forest Service officials at the Lolo Peak incident command center in Florence after unveiling his vision to improve forest health and reduce summer wildfires. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Zinke said the Interior Department gets along “extraordinary well” with the Trump administration, and efforts are underway to ensure the departments of Interior and Agriculture work more closely together to manage the nation’s forests.

Both Zinke and Perdue pointed to funding, saying too much money is being spent fighting fires and not enough is being directed to manage the nation’s forests.

“The U.S. Forest Service used to spend about 15 percent of its budget on fire suppression, but now it’s spending 55 percent of its budge,” said Perdue. “We don’t have the monetary resources to manage these forests to reduce the fuel. We’ve got to have help to get ahead of these issues.”

Perdue said several bills are pending in Congress to resolve the funding issue, and how much is allocated for firefighting versus forest management. He also blamed litigation by environmentalists for delaying needed fuel-reduction projects.

Perdue said extensive lawsuits have forced the Forest Service to shift its priorities, leaving less money to manage forest health. Instead, the bulk of the agency’s budget currently goes to fighting fires.

“That’s what has evolved into the 55 percent,” Perdue said of the budget. “We could do some of the things that we wanted to. It is cause and effect.”

Rep. Greg Gianforte, left, and Sen. Steve Daines, both Montana Republicans, discuss ways to improve forest health and reduce summer wildfires. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Both Daines and Gianforte agreed that too much time and money is spent fighting wildfires and not enough goes to forest management. While 5 million acres in Montana have been identified as diseased timber, only 46,000 acres have been treated, they said.

“If we manage our forests, we’ll have healthier forests, there will be more wildlife and more hunting opportunities, we’ll have timber going to our mills creating jobs, and we’ll have less intense and less frequent forest fires,” Gianforte said. “And yet, we’re tied up in knots with extensive and ridiculous permitting processes and frivolous lawsuits from environmental extremists.”

Gianforte said environmentalists are using the courts to “shut down every forest management project in the state.” That has delayed treatment efforts that could have reduced the size and intensity of summer wildfires.

“Talking to people in the timber industry, over 50 percent of planned forest management projects in the state are challenged in court, tied up, and ultimately they burn,” Gianforte said. “We need to put some common sense guardrails on Equal Access to Justice to reduce frivolous lawsuits.”

Perdue pointed to lands once managed by the Plum Creek Timber Company as a success story. In 2008, former Sen. Max Baucus used money from the Farm Bill to help purchase 310,000 acres of Plum Creek land in Montana, which would later become known as the Montana Legacy Project.

“What you see where I’m from, and even out here with the Plum Creek property, you see less forest fires,” Purdue said. “Obviously, as the climate changes, temperatures change and weather changes, we have to deal with it, we have to adapt to it, and we have to manage the forest to get ahead of that.”

On the climate issue, Daines said the changes are nothing new. He pointed to the Big Burn in 1910, the 1930s Dust Bowl and other natural disasters to suggest an evolving climate.

“The climate has always been changing,” he said. “We go through warmer cycles, cooler cycles, drought and excessive precipitation. We’re in a warm cycle right now – we’re in drought conditions here in Montana – and consequently we’re having a severe fire season.

“Either we are going to better manage our forests, or our forests are going to manage us.”