The Missoulian: Daines calls for wide-ranging forest reform in phone-in town hall meeting

Montana needs timber management that addresses all 10 of the state’s national forests, Sen. Steve Daines told listeners on a statewide conference call.

The Republican senator from Montana questioned callers for about an hour on Tuesday evening from his office in Washington, D.C. He introduced the issue by noting Montana harvested 624 million board-feet of timber at its peak in 1987, but just 113 million board-feet in 2014.

“We need to find a path forward to create economic opportunities in rural forest counties,” Daines said. “One that supports access for sportsmen and multiple use.”

Daines said he wanted feedback from listeners rather than discuss his own ideas for forest policy reform. But in response to a question about Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, he said the effort needed to be larger.

“Sen. Tester and myself will be working together as we look at forest management reforms going forward,” Daines said. “But I think one of the challenges we have is we need to ensure our reforms address all 10 of our national forests in Montana. Sen. Tester’s collaborative effort dealt with only three. And even before the change in leadership in the Senate, that bill never saw the light of day on the Senate floor. It’s going to be difficult to get that bill through a Republican-controlled Senate.”

Daines added Tester’s bill, which mandates timber harvest and fuels treatments over 15 years on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Lolo and Kootenai national forests, nevertheless had a sunset clause. He said forest reforms needed to be permanent.

“Clearly the Montana delegation has to work together on this,” he said. “We’re working on more comprehensive reforms in this next package.”

To a questioner asking if he supported efforts to transfer federal land to state control, Daines said he wanted to see more state authority in land-use decisions.

“I think there is a question about the financial feasibility of an actual transfer of deed (of federal property) to the state of Montana,” Daines said. “But we have a lot of room for moving the control from D.C.-centric management to more state management. I believe government that’s closer to the people it affects will yield better outcomes.”

He also supported moves to curtail the Equal Access to Justice Act, which many environmental and business groups have used to recover legal fees when they successfully sue the federal government.

“I think a bonding provision needs to be part of comprehensive timber reform,” Daines said, referring to proposals to require challengers of federal timber sales to post bonds equal to the cost of the project. “Requiring more skin in the game for those who want to sue the federal government will be part of those reforms.”