Forest reform needed to protect Montana communities

Montana’s National Forests and public lands have been a treasured part of our state’s heritage for generations.

Growing up in Bozeman, I spent weekends hunting in the Bridgers, backpacking in the Beartooths and fishing the rivers and streams of southwest Montana. Cindy and I were engaged on a 10,000-foot summit in the Gallatin National Forest. The love of the outdoors is a tradition that I, like many Montanans, have been thankful to pass along to my kids.

While Montanans recognize the importance of our public lands, memories alone won’t protect these precious resources for future generations. We must work together to protect Montanans’ access to our public lands and improve the long-term health of our forests.

One important program that Montanans have united behind is the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which helps preserve and protect Montanans’ opportunities to enjoy hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation. I’m a proud cosponsor of legislation to make LWCF permanent and will continue to fight to reauthorize this program.

However, LWCF is only one component of a much larger and needed effort to protect our public lands. Restoring the health of our national forests is also crucial to conservation and protecting our outdoor heritage.

Untreated forest lands

In recent weeks I joined Forest Service leaders in visiting our national forests to get a firsthand look at the urgent need to combat deteriorating conditions and reduce the risk of wildfire. While good work is being done, millions of acres across Montana are vulnerable to wildfire or suffering from beetle kill but are being left untreated. Nearly 2 million of those acres are most in need of treatment because they are near populated communities or threaten watersheds. Unfortunately, in fiscal year 2014 the Forest Service was able to treat only 52,000 of the two million acres. Public safety, watersheds, wildlife habitat, and access to recreation are at risk.

And with lower than average snowpack and rain resulting in low water levels in our rivers and streams, firefighting teams aren’t planning for if there is a catastrophic fire this summer, they are planning for when. We must take action to create healthy forests now – and not wait until Mother Nature makes the decision for us.

Compounding the risk are years of inadequate forest management practices, spurred by obstructionist litigation from fringe groups and excessive regulations. In addition, the Forest Service is being forced to spend much of its budget on responding to fires rather than preventing them. Currently, the worst one percent of fires consumes 30 percent of the Forest Service budget. That’s why I helped introduce the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which ensures large forest fires are treated and funded as the true natural disasters they are, similar to hurricanes or tornadoes.

It’s incumbent upon Congress to remove these barriers and equip the Forest Service with the authorization and resources they need to protect communities and the environment by enhancing active forest management.

Encouraging House bill

I’m encouraged that the bipartisan forest reform bill recently passed by the House of Representatives would create incentives and would protect Montana-made collaborative projects and would ensure that the Forest Service can do its important restoration and conservation work more quickly. I will continue working on similar reforms in the Senate so that we can get legislation signed into law as soon as possible.

In the past seven months, I’ve traveled thousands of miles across Montana attending briefings and meeting with conservation leaders, sportsmen groups, local elected officials, timber representatives, mill workers and local business owners to discuss the need for active forest management.

There is strong bipartisan agreement that the status quo in our national forests is not acceptable – we need forest reform now.

As your senator, I will continue working to ensure that Montanans’ voices are heard so that we can protect Montana’s most valuable resource – our great outdoors.