Independent Record: Forest reform package would fund wildfires like other natural disasters, Montana delegation says

Montana’s congressional delegation says reforms to forest management, including an end to “fire borrowing,” will be included in must-pass legislation this week.

On a media call Wednesday, Republicans Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte detailed a forest reform package as part of an omnibus bill, which includes funding wildfires similarly to other natural disasters. The reform ends fire borrowing — the practice of using funds from other programs such as trail maintenance to pay for fires that exceed budgets. Under the changes, when fire budgets run dry, agencies may tap into natural disaster funding rather than their own budgets.

“It allows the Forest Service to use more of its funds on timber management, forest management and recreation programs rather than fire suppression,” Daines said. “This is something I’ve been fighting for for a long time. I’m pleased to see this now in the bill we expect to pass soon.”

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester also applauded the move in a rural press call Wednesday, saying “This is a major step forward and I am confident that this important wildfire funding fix will allow us to better manage our forests.”

Gianforte said he was also pleased with the reforms, but felt the bill does not ultimately do enough to address all his concerns. He cited additional provisions of a bill he co-sponsored called the Resilient Federal Forests Act, which included steps to curb environmental litigation.

“I’ll characterize it as a step in the right direction, but we have more work to do to eliminate the threat of catastrophic wildfires, the threat they pose to Montanans, and the impediments that exist to put Montanans back to work in our forests,” he said.

Both Daines and Gianforte said they would continue to push for litigation reforms, including an arbitration system and limiting legal payments under the Equal Access to Justice Act, referring to litigants as “radicals” and “extremists.”

Those reforms and characterizations have seen pushback from environmental watchdogs, who point to litigation successes in which agencies have been found in violation of federal law, and say they challenge projects based on negative impacts to wildlife and wildlands.

Although specifics were not yet available Wednesday, the delegation said the package will partially overturn the “Cottonwood Decision.” Following expansion of critical habitat for threatened Canada lynx, the federal court decision required the U.S. Forest Service to complete additional consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the landscape level rather than at the project level.

The delegation believes Cottonwood brought uncertainty to forest projects, while environmental groups say landscape level consideration is needed to protect lynx and other endangered species.

The package also includes an expansion of categorical exclusions for hazardous fuel reductions. Categorical exclusions allow agencies to expedite management by preempting full environmental analysis for certain activities.

Categorical exclusions have already seen greater use in forests heavily impacted by insects, but Daines and Gianforte said further reforms will give agencies more flexibility.

Tester did not address those reforms in his Wednesday talk.

The reforms come with the 2017 wildfire season still fresh in memory. While increasing forest management via thinning, logging and prescribed burning has seen support from the delegation, scientists have cautioned that thinning alone will not stop large wildfires burning under extreme conditions and that climate change is likely to drive large fires in the future.

Gianforte echoed his previous statements, saying in part that policies should focus on what is under their control, namely active forest management. The reforms, he believes, will help agencies spend more resources on management and other programs such as recreation.

The delegation also touted reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools program. The program pays $25 million to forested counties that have seen a decline in timber production for programs such as schools and roads. The program has gone unauthorized since 2015 and counties will receive retroactive funding, Daines said.

“This funding bill will provide much needed certainty to Montana county governments to help ensure they can continue to provide essential services without blowing a hole in their budget,” Tester said.