Montana DNRC requests funding to increase logging on national forests

Sonya Germann

As the state plans to increase logging on national forests, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation wants more money to prepare and manage timber sales.

On Monday, a legislative appropriations committee heard some of the reasons why the DNRC is requesting about $7 million per year more than it did in the 2017 session. The main reason, said executive director John Tubbs, is to hire more employees, partly to make up for attrition and partly to prepare to start logging national forests under a Farm Bill program.

“DNRC, since I’ve taken over in 2013, has lost 20 (full-time employees). We have not grown this agency. I’ve lost. We had about 520; we’re down to 500,” Tubbs said. “We are going to ask for some FTE’s. But, even if those are approved for the forestry division, we’ll be net-down 14 FTE since I started.”

In particular, Tubbs wants enough money for state forester Sonya Germann to hire 6.5 people to help expedite timber sales and contracting on national forests as authorized under the Good Neighbor Authority program created by the 2014 Farm Bill. Germann also needs extra money for the program’s operating expenses.

The advantage of the GNA program is efficiency, because state contracts are simpler than federal contracts and it’s easier for the state to hire contactors and equipment on a local level, Germann said.

“Without the additional positions and funding, it would be very improbably for us to start a program of work on all seven national forests,” Germann said.

Past budgets have included money for two temporary employees to work with counties on forest issues, but Germann said she needs more workers to expand the program. She wants to make those two positions permanent while the others would be one-time-only while the program is winding up.

Two logging projects have been completed on the Kootenai National Forest. More projects are slated to log more than 10,000 acres on the other national forests and produce 81 million board-feet of lumber, Germann said.

Revenue from those timber sales would remain with the state instead of the federal government, under the Good Neighbor Authority. The expectation is that by 2022, Montana would be making enough money that they could pay the extra employees without dipping into the general fund.

“What we’re trying to do here is kind of a prime-the-pump type of deal where we’re asking the state to put these positions in place so we can get the timber revenue started. Then we can report back two years from now as to the success of that revenue generation,” Tubbs said.

The timber and wood products industry are eager to get those timber sales going, so some companies are donating their own funds. Germann said the forest products industry and the Montana Logging Association have donated $150,000 and have pledged another $300,000 over the next two years. Allied business partners and conservation organizations have promised another $95,000.

The DNRC is asking the Legislature for the authority to funnel money from timber sales back into the GNA program, so it could be somewhat self-sustaining. Tubbs said the plan is to make enough money that it can also pay for non-commercial thinning operations around communities and in the wildland-urban interface.

After the Farm Bill passed in 2014, Gov. Steve Bullock identified 5 million acres of national forest that the DNRC determined was in need of treatment to try to reduce threats from forest insects and disease, wildfires, or both.

Gov. Steve Bullock

DNRC foresters began talks with the U.S. Forest Service on how to manage those acres, but it didn’t start off well because federal foresters their expertise was being questioned, Tubbs said.

“It took two years of DNRC working very hard with the Regional Forester to get forest service employees behind Good Neighbor Authority,” Tubbs said. “They’re going to have to maintain their federal targets, but we’re going to add to that so we get closer to sustainable yield.”

During public comment, representatives of the timber industry turned out to encourage the committee to support the GNA, including the Montana Logging Industry and the Montana Wood Products Association.

Julia Altemus said the lumber supply from national forests has gotten better over the past few years but the state’s program would add more.

“The Forest Service in Region 1 hopes to ramp up by 2020 – in one year – from 400 million board-feet to 500 million board-feet. It’s going to be critical that the GNA is part of that,” Altemus said.

On Thursday, the committee is holding a workshop on the Good Neighbor Authority and committee members said they still had many questions before approving the added cost.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.