Montana hailed as national leader in forest collaboration, but frustrations persist

Among those participating in the two-day forest collaboration workshop are, left to right, Gordy Sanders, Pyramid Mountain Lumber; Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney; and Jim Hubbard, undersecretary of Agriculture. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Federal and state leaders laud not only the ability of Montanans to hash out tough issues but also the way collaboration has gotten several timber projects into production.

That was evident from the speeches of Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Jim Hubbard, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary, who kicked off the Montana Forest Collaboration Network’s annual two-day workshop in Missoula. 

The two men praised the efforts of Montana’s collaborative groups, represented by the 120 participants in the audience, that have put many hours into finding agreement on which forest tracts have “the right acres in the right places” to sustain commercial timber projects.

“In an age where political polarization often threatens the progress of important policy, you all quietly keep coming back to the table, year after year,” Cooney said. “You find sensible paths forward by engaging diverse local perspectives, treating one another like neighbors in advancing plans that ultimately can achieve durable returns for our forests and our communities.”

Cooney said that kind of cooperation was one reason Gov. Steve Bullock was able to make Montana the first state to sign a stewardship agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, allowing the state to negotiate with federal, tribal and private partners to thin trees or use prescribed burns regardless of who manages the area. Thus, foresters can focus on any region that might be important for reducing wildfire risk near communities. Yet, only seven other states have signed shared stewardship agreements.

Hubbard said being able to work across multiple jurisdictions is necessary to do work at a large enough scale to be effective at slowing a potential wildfire. But when it comes to wildfire, thinning projects go only so far.

“There’s no way in the world we’re going to protect all the communities that are at risk of fire in the West. There’s no way in the world we’re going to treat all the acres that need treatment. So which ones are we going to go for? That’s the shared priority, to decide what we want to do together,” Hubbard said. “Also, the community has to be engaged, because if the community isn’t paying attention, all that land treatment is not necessarily going to reduce their risk very much.”

Bullock was also among the first to sign a Good Neighbor agreement. The 2014 Farm Bill created the Good Neighbor Authority to allow states to log timber on federal land adjacent to state or private land undergoing thinning operations. The 2018 Farm Bill broadened that authority. 

Hubbard said he’d visited many groups working on forests around the West as part of his job, but Montana stands out, because its governor, Department of Natural Resources, and state forester provide the right kind of leadership.

“I don’t think anybody does it better than you guys,” Hubbard said. “I don’t see this kind of coming together anywhere else.”

Hubbard, who retired from the U.S. Forest Service before being confirmed in 2018 as undersecretary, said his boss, Sonny Perdue, wanted to give states a say in federal forest management because Perdue had also been a governor. 

“As far as he’s concerned, the main thing is more active management on those forests. He keeps track. Right now, the way he’s keeping track is volume – how much volume is being harvested,” Hubbard said. “In 2018, the Forest Service had the highest volume accomplishment that it had in 20 years. And 2019 exceeded that. So it says maybe we’re headed in a direction that does create more active management. But are those the right acres in the right place for the right reason? That’s what shared stewardship is all about.”

Federal and state agencies don’t always agree on priorities or procedures. Hubbard said that’s a challenge, especially since the Stewardship and Good Neighbor programs are still fairly new. The kinks haven’t been worked out yet.

Bullock has taken advantage of federal forestry programs but didn’t want to mandate how and where projects would run. In 2015, he unveiled Montana’s model, the Forests In Focus Initiative, which emphasizes collaboration among diverse interests in each community. 

DNRC chief John Tubbs said the emphasis is on building “true collaboratives” with a balanced mix of stakeholders so each voice is represented in the final project. 

Since then, 300,000 acres of federal land has been logged as part of the initiative, producing 190 million board-feet of lumber that maintained 3,000 jobs in the forestry/lumber sector.

Now, Montana is ready to add more projects under the Good Neighbor Authority, Cooney said. Thirteen are in the works with another 16 slated for the future.

Hubbard encouraged all the proposals but still voiced skepticism about whether collaboration would produce Perdue’s measure of success: volume.

“Gov. Bullock was the first one to come to me and say, ‘I’m definitively interested in this, and oh, by the way, you’ve got the approach a little bit wrong. Our Forests In Focus works better than what you’re talking about,’” Hubbard said. “That’s part of the dialogue – how do we come up with our mutual priorities? And how we get there is something that we have yet to define.”

Some in the audience voiced frustration about the fact that, after all the collaborative work, some of those projects could be held up by lawsuits. Some cited lawsuit delays as a reason why some collaborative members “burn out.” State Rep. Kerry White, R-Gallatin Gateway, asked if the state could file more legal briefs in defense of federal logging projects.

Hubbard said the Trump administration was looking for a consistent interpretation of the Good Neighbor Authority in the courts. Otherwise, the administration might “help put some boundaries on the act, so we can know how to do our business right.”

Tubbs said litigation is a fact of life, and that right should remain open to all. But the way to deal with it is to ensure all the proper policies and procedures are followed when developing a project, Tubbs said.

Groups who sue to stop logging projects win when the Forest Service didn’t follow the law.

“I am not worried about a project being stopped – I am worried about the process being stopped,” Tubbs said. “When it comes down to the court, I want to be able to get the check ‘they did it right’ as opposed to ‘they don’t get to take you to court.’ I’m not afraid to go to court if we’ve done it right.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.