Economics and timber in Northwest Montana

State and national leaders continue to weigh timber restrictions alongside the future of communities in Northwest Montana.

Reporter Nicole Miller learned more about some efforts that are underway to make good on past promises while President Trump’s recently released budget threatens funding for conservation and public lands in Montana and across the country.

During Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s first hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) spoke with him about the lack of revenue in economically pressed timber-rich counties due to the restrictions on the timber industry on federally owned lands.

“We have counties in Montana that have over 90% owned by the federal government and of course there is no tax base there because the federal government doesn’t pay taxes,” Sen. Daines said.

“[We need to] help these county commissioners who are struggling…reducing their staffing on their road crews. And we have county commissioners jumping on graters plowing snow in the wintertime to keep the school buses going because of the lack of revenues because we’ve lost our timber industry on these federal lands,” Sen. Daines added.

The Republican says he is very concerned about the proposed $1.6 billion in budget cuts to the U.S. Department of the Interior proposed by President Trump which funds programs like the PILT program and the Secure Rural Schools program.

“The PILT program — Payment in Lieu of Taxes — because the federal government does not pay taxes, are a life-blood for these counties out west. We need to improve land management, but in the meantime we have got to provide,” Sen. Daines said. “I believe full funding to these programs to create certainty for our local county budgets.”

The programs keep struggling counties such as Lincoln, Sanders, Mineral, and Lake going by providing funds to make up for the lost timber revenue.

“What our issues are and you know the restrictions that we have on our local budgets due to the difficulties in the timber industry,” said Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker.

Secretary Zinke says the budget originally allocated no money for the PILT program but now includes $397 million which is a good start. The Whitefish Republican added that the SRS has not been authorized.

“Right now it sits in this proposed budget as a 12% reduction…[with] the uncertainty of what’s going to happen with SRS. But it is unlike [the] last budget [because] there’s $397 million in it, which is a good start,” Secretary Zinke said.