Great Falls Tribune: Forest, firefighting funding reforms included in spending bill in Congress

Reforms to improve forest management and how firefighting is funded are among the provisions important to Montana included in the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill making its way through Congress, according to Montana lawmakers.

A bill protecting public land north of Yellowstone National Park from mining, however, did not make it into the omnibus bill, prompting one of the state’s senators to criticize the other for its failure to be included.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., told reporters via telephone Wednesday that he was able to secure forest management and wildfire funding reforms in the bill.

One provision reduces red tape and streamlines projects that reduce hazardous fuels in the forest, making them prone to wildfires, Daines said.

For example, it expands the use of “categorical exclusion” for hazardous fuels reduction projects up to 3,000 acres. That means less National Environmental Policy Act paperwork for those projects, Daines said. 

That provision is particularly important in light of the severe 2017 fire season when 1.3 million acres burned in Montana and the firefighting bill was $400 million, with $62 million the state’s responsibility, Daines said.

Daines also said the bill contains language that reverses the Cottonwood decision.

In 2015, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Cottonwood that the U.S. Forest Service needed to reinitiate consultation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service following the 2009 designation of critical habitat for the Canada lynx.

As a result of this ruling, courts stopped projects during the consultation process throughout the 18 national forests inhabited by lynx, said Daines, adding it was devastating to the timber industry in Montana.

“By passing this bill, it reverses this decision,” Daines said Wednesday.

Increasing the use of categorical exclusion projects to reduce fuels in addition to the partial overturning of the Cottonwood ruling would result in less frivolous litigation over forest projects, said U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont.

A categorical exclusion allows some projects to be completed with less rigorous environmental review.

Another provision included in the bill will specifically streamline projects that reduce vegetation around infrastructure such as power lines to protect them and the electricity grid from fires, Daines said.

“This gives us more latitude for fuels reduction projects,” Daines said.

And fourth, an agreement has been reached that will change the way wildfires are funded, he said.

In the future, funding for wildfire firefighting will come from a separate account, based on language in the bill.

As a result, Daines said, the Forest Service will be able to keep more of its funding for forest projects and management rather than spending those funds on fires.

“There are more dollars now for the Forest Service to fight fires,” he said.

Daines called inclusion of the provisions in the omnibus bill a significant win for forest management and fire funding.

It’s been a five-year battle, he said.

In the past, proposed reforms have only gotten to the five-yard line, said Daines.

“It looks like this time we’re going to put it in the end zone,” Daines said.

The bill will be making its way through Congress in the next day or two, Daines said.

The omnibus bill will provide $25 million in retroactive Secure Rural Schools funding to Montana schools and counties that wasn’t paid the past two years, he said. SRS provides funding to rural counties and schools near national forests.

The proposed changes in fire funding and management are steps in the right direction but don’t go far enough, Gianforte said. He said he would seek additional reforms in the House.

Gianforte sponsored the Resilient Forest Federal Forests Act of 2017 that passed the House but not the Senate. The bill addresses the growing threat of catastrophic fires, he said.

A bill that would withdraw 30,000 acres in the Custer Gallatin National Forest north of Yellowstone National Park from mineral leasing is not included in the omnibus bill, said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

Tester wrote a letter to Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., vice chairman of the committee, requesting that they include the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act in the omnibus appropriations package.

“I will tell you I played hard to get it in,” Tester said.

Both Tester and Gianforte introduced legislation to protect the area from mining. Daines was not a co-sponsor of the legislation. 

Had Daines “been on this bill, we would have got it done,” Tester said of inclusion of the Gateway bill in the omnibus legislation.

“This is actually a no-brainer and I can’t believe we don’t have everyone on board fighting like hell for it, and if we would have we would have got it done,” Tester said.

Daines disagreed with Tester that he was to blame for the Gateway bill not being included in the omnibus bill.

“It’s unfortunate it didn’t happen this time,” Daines said of the Gateway bill. “It doesn’t mean you give up.”

Tester said he won’t.

“We’re going to get this damn thing done,” Tester said. “I guarantee it.”