The Missoulian: Wildfire bill aims at lynx rule, litigation changes

A draft bill proposing wide changes to public forest management includes a provision by Sen. Steve Daines overturning a federal court ruling on endangered species habitat.

Daines, R-Mont., discussed the Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act of 2017 at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on Wednesday. The full bill, by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., hasn’t been formally introduced yet.

“We have had one of the most devastating fire seasons this year across the West and in Montana,” Daines wrote in an email. “We need forest management reform now to reduce the severity and intensity of wildfires and create more good-paying jobs.”

Although the first word of the bill is “wildfire,” it focuses most of its effort on reducing oversight of federal land management. Its introduction states it will “discourage litigation against the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management relating to land management projects” as well as allow categorical exclusions for sage grouse and mule deer habitat projects, address the “forest health crisis” on national forests, and prioritize forest management activities.

The bill also includes Daines’ proposed congressional action to overturn a U.S. 9th Circuit Court decision requiring programmatic consultation between the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service on endangered species critical habitat. Known as the Cottonwood decision, the reversal is also supported by Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana.

The Bozeman-based Cottonwood Law Firm prevailed at the appeals court level requiring the two agencies to work together when working on Canada lynx, which is a threatened species. The decision ordering the agencies to take action came a year ago in October.

That actual consultation was completed on Oct. 18. The resulting 47-page biological opinion did not require a forest plan revision or public comment process.

“The bill sponsored by Montana’s Senators to ‘overturn the Cottonwood decision’ is nothing more than a give-away of our public lands to for-profit logging companies who have already clearcut their own private lands and would now like to clearcut our publicly owned National Forest lands as well, endangered wildlife be damned,” Alliance for the Wild Rockies Director Michael Garrity wrote in an email Wednesday. “Most of the National Forests in Montana have been revising their forest plans for years and everything continues during that process, including hiking, camping, skiing, hunting, fishing, mining, logging, trapping, research and trail maintenance.”

The rest of the bill provides for categorical exclusions to simplify permitting for sage grouse and mule deer habitat projects, forest projects addressing insect or disease infestations, and a reduction of environmental review alternatives in Forest Service planning processes to “action” or “no action.”

It also would create a five-year pilot project using binding arbitration to resolve challenges to forest activity that wouldn’t be subject to court review.

In testimony on Wednesday, Sustainable Northwest policy director Dylan Kruse told the committee the bill combined several controversial measures that would be better considered separately.

“We are troubled by proposals that cut short environmental laws, create additional levels of bureaucracy and introduce unnecessary and redundant new authorities that are likely to cause increased tension and threats of litigation in land management planning and decision-making.”

Kruse noted that Oregon and Washington public forests already have finished environmental reviews for restoration projects on more than 2 million acres. But the $350 million to-do list lacks federal funding.

“We have shovel-ready work and landscape-level solutions, but Congress must be willing to pay for them,” Kruse testified. “Doing so will protect firefighters and communities, put people to work in the woods and decease the massive costs of future wildfire suppression.”

Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser said he agreed with the National Association of State Foresters that forest regulations needed reduction.

“Much of the challenge for federal managers is due to overly burdensome environmental regulations that are, in many cases, doing more harm than good to Wyoming’s forests,” Crapser testified. “Frankly we have been quite frustrated.”