State foresters would have more ways to help manage federal and private forests under a bipartisan proposal authored by senators Steve Daines and Amy Klobuchar.
Daines, R-Mont., and Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced the Environmental and Economic Benefits Restoration Act of 2016 on Monday evening. In an interview on Tuesday, Daines said the legislation would make it easier for states to help the U.S. Forest Service get hazardous fuels reduction work done.
“One frustration we have as Montanans, is we see the state out managing state lands, but we don’t see our national forests getting actively managed,” Daines said. “This would allow (Montana State Forester) Bob Harrington to use fuel reduction funds for Good Neighbor Authority projects. It would be one more piece of an overall, comprehensive forest health initiative.”
The 12-page bill has not yet been assigned to a committee or had hearings. Daines said it was uncertain if it would see action before this session of Congress expires.
“This may lay the groundwork for a future farm bill,” Daines said. “Whether that’s in some current package of legislation or something in the future, I don’t know yet.”
The bill would let state forestry agencies use federal fuels reduction money in places where work on state or private land would also improve federal land. Harrington said the Bitterroot Valley has many examples, where the state used federal dollars for grants to local fire departments or collaborative groups to create defensible space around homes along the Bitterroot National Forest.
“State foresters, as a group, tend to have our ear to the ground about the needs of local forest industry and logging and manufacturing sectors,” Harrington said. “We tend to have been here a while. It’s a way to ground-truth where the money’s going.”
Harrington added that in the past, forest management money has tended to be segregated into federal, state or private projects. The new bill takes a landscape-level perspective of forest management, making it easier to do projects that cross those property lines.
Landscape-scale work would also take place on noxious weed control, mountain pine beetle restoration, habitat improvements and water quality protection projects. Daines’ office estimated about 844,000 acres in Montana are privately owned forest lands in high risk of wildfire. Montana has 22.5 million acres of forest land.
Daines said this bill was separate from other forest management legislation now under debate in Congress. That includes measures to reform “fire-borrowing” that forces the Forest Service to spend regular program money on forest firefighting, proposals to reform the National Environmental Policy Act, restrictions on lawsuits challenging forest management and requirements to increase timber harvest on federal lands.
“We hope to pull all these together at some point,” Daines said. “This bill is starting off with strong bipartisan support. That’s a good signal that we’re going to have support for this particular bill.”