Daines’ bill would stop “fringe litigators” from blocking forest management projects

From left to right, Rep. Greg Gianforte, Sen. Steve Daines, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke discuss the litigation and lack for forest management they partially blame for Montana’s worsening fire seasons during a state tour earlier this year. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Sen. Steve Daines has joined Idaho’s two Republican senators in introducing a new measure intended to accelerate timber harvests and stop what he called “radical environmentalists” from obstructing forest management.

The Protect Collaboration for Healthier Forests bill, introduced last week in partnership with Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, would enable the U.S. Forest Service to use binding arbitration as an alternative tool to resolve disputes for certain forest projects.

The pilot project would apply to Region 1, including Montana and parts of Idaho – areas that experience more litigation than any other region, according to Daines.

“Fringe litigators – radical environmental extremists – sue to stop common-sense collaborative forest management projects that would reduce the risk of wildfire,” Daines said. “We need to provide common-sense relief to the Forest Service to get projects off the ground and out of the courtroom. We need to manage our forests before our forests manage us.”

Projects developed through a collaborative process and intended to reduce hazardous fuels would be able to take place more quickly under the proposed measure, Daines said.

Earlier this year, he joined other Republicans, including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, in a state tour where they expressed frustration over the litigation.

Critics of the legislative effort contend that litigation is a necessary citizen tool to ensure the Forest Service adheres to the law when managing wildlife security. They also believe the push to accelerate forest management overlooks the broader impacts of climate change.

Montana’s timber industry supports the new measure.

“The Montana wood products industry has long advocated for alternative dispute resolution as an option to deal with obstructionist litigation in Region 1 that impacts jobs in the woods and at the mills, said Julia Altemus, executive director of the Montana Wood Products Association. “This reasonable approach will be a step forward in judicial relief that’s desperately needed in Region 1.”

Daines said the Forest Service has cited 19 projects in Region 1 that are currently impacted by litigation, 12 of which were developed through a collaborative process. Of the 19 projects, 15 are located in Montana and 10 of those were designed with collaboration.

Seventeen of the 19 projects include land inside the wildland-urban interface, Daines said.

“One of the main reasons forests remain unmanaged and susceptible to insects, disease and wildfire is the staggering number of lawsuits filed by organizations seeking to stop all management,” said David Allen, president and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “Those who don’t support an arbitration process at some level aren’t truly committed to solving the issues plaguing our national forests.”