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Forest officials tell Gianforte Good Neighbor Authority moving projects forward

Rep. Greg Gianforte chats with state and U.S. Forest Service officials at the Montana Technology and Development Center. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Two years after its expansion, the Good Neighbor Authority has helped agencies pool resources to improve forest health across Montana, a team of state and federal officials told Rep. Greg Gianforte on Tuesday.

Gianforte met with various agency leaders at the Montana Technology Development Center in Missoula as he explores ways to give forest managers more tools to resolve what he described as a crisis in forest health.

“We have a forest health crisis in large part because we haven’t been able to get on the ground to do the work,” Gianforte said. “It makes sense to take these longer-term views and more collaborative approaches between the state, the county commissions and the Forest Service.”

The Good Neighbor Authority allows the Forest Service to enter into agreements with other agencies to complete management work aimed at improving forest health. The program was expanded in 2018 under the U.S. Farm Bill by adding categorical exclusions to expedite the treatment of federal land up to 4,500 acres without completing a full environmental review.

Leanne Marten, the regional forester for Region 1, said the program is going “really well” in Montana, bringing partners together in ways not possible in past years. A number of projects are either underway with decisions signed or pending.

“We’re working very well together with the state – the program is improving and it’s really growing exponentially,” Marten said. “It’s actually helping us with capacity and serving as a catalyst on the planning side and implementation side, and really working across sectors and not worrying about jurisdictions.”

Marten said the program has netted 14 projects this year and next totaling around 55 million board feet of timber. She said four timber sales are currently active under the Good Neighbor Authority and two more have been advertised.

The program has helped various agencies at the federal, state and local level work across jurisdictions. In the past, she said, that only happened during emergency fire suppression and other rare instances.

“Now, we’ve just enhanced our capacity to do more work on the ground,” Marten said. “The authority has enabled us to do that. It has enabled us to add to that capacity. Our employees are working seamlessly in a lot of places now.”

Leanne Marten, leader of the U.S. Forest Services Region 1, right, and Sonya Germann, Montana state forester with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, left, discuss the Good Neighbor Program with Rep. Greg Gianforte in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Montana State Forester Sonya Germann with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation offered a similar view. She said 85% of the forested acres across the state are currently at risk of severe wildfire. The threats extend across ownership boundaries, though most of it sits on federal land.

The ability to collaborate with other partners is moving remedies forward, she said.

“We represent the interest of Montana citizens when it comes to forest health and the wildland fire risk on all lands,” she said. “In many of our communities, they’re experiencing an economic downturn or they’re experiencing major community protection issues.

“This is our opportunity to lend a hand to our federal partners to get that work done that’s critical to communities across the U.S.,” she added. “It’s good work that needs to be done, and this is another way to get all hands on deck to get these issues addressed.”

Marten said the program carries other benefits beyond fuel loading and wildfire risks. It addresses commercial harvesting, watershed improvements, weeds and wildlife habitat. While project funding can’t be used for recreation, Marten said it has indirect benefits.

“By having the forest health as your baseline condition, it encourages the recreation,” Marten said. “Having wildlife habitat and all that, it adds values to the recreation.”

Agency leaders said the program could still use modifications in how proceeds from projects flow – and where they go. None of the revenues currently go to counties, which struggle under other unpredictable funding sources, such as the Secure Rural Schools Act which reimburses heavily timbered counties.

Other program rules create administrative barriers, they said. Gianforte said he’d work to improve the program, calling it beneficial to forest health in Montana.

“We’ve got a forest health crisis, and we’ve been trying in Washington to put some more tools in the box, like the delegation of the Good Neighbor Authority down to county commissioners, the work with the state and trying to get some active projects,” he said.

“We need these tools to augment the Forest Service resources with NRDC resources or county resources. There isn’t enough resources in the Forest Service to get these things done.”