Missoulian: Daines adds slate of forest amendments to Farm Bill

The new version of the 2018 Farm Bill may have a lot of Montana-based timber policy changes, including restrictions on court challenges to logging projects and simplified forest management rules.

Much of that will come from Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, who filed 20 amendments to the bill on Monday evening. Those additions will be discussed in mark-up sessions over this week.

“Chairman Roberts asked me to take the lead on the forestry side,” Daines said on Tuesday, referring to Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas. “I’m using that as another vehicle to work on forest management reform.”

Daines said a compromise between Roberts and ranking member Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, means he needs to find as much bipartisan backing as possible for the amendments to get attached to the Farm Bill at the committee level. Those that don’t make it would have to survive the more difficult process of getting accepted through a floor vote of the full Senate expected later this month.

While the Farm Bill concentrates on farming and ranching matters, food access and safety, and trade, it also covers the U.S. Forest Service as part of the Department of Agriculture. Daines said his amendments fall in two loose categories: litigation relief, and relaxing regulations on forest management.

“Litigation relief is something that is badly needed not only in Montana but across our country,” Daines said. His staff reported that 29 timber sales or projects are currently challenged in court in Montana, with 13 stopped by injunction. One of Daines’ amendments would let Forest Service Region 1 pilot an arbitration process to resolve project objections without going to court.

The Region 1 Forester could use arbitration twice a year on national forests in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and South Dakota to expedite solutions to objections.

Other amendments would make it harder for a judge to issue an injunction during a court challenge unless the protesters can show they are likely to win on the merits of the case, and would disallow injunctions for procedural mistakes made by the Forest Service.

Project protesters would face stricter requirements to participate in administrative objection meetings, or lose their ability to go to court. Project collaborators would have expanded abilities to support the Forest Service in court over objections.

An omnibus spending bill passed in March reversed large parts of a court ruling known as the Cottonwood decision that required extensive consultation between the Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on changes to Endangered Species Act critical habitat. A Daines amendment would strengthen that reversal to limit consultations only when “significant new information” demands additional review of an endangered species.

On the regulations side, Daines’ amendments would speed up National Environmental Policy Act reviews by limiting collaborative projects to an action/no action choice, instead of the current multiple option analyses. It would make it easier for the Forest Service to make emergency situation determinations that allow faster permission for post-fire salvage logging and restoration work.

Categorical exclusions would apply to 250-acre early seral habitat projects that use timber harvest to improve conditions for wildlife like wild turkey and ruffed grouse. An expansion of the Good Neighbor Authority would allow counties to direct fuels reduction and harvesting projects the same way that state and tribal governments now do with the Forest Service.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, does not sit on the Agriculture Committee but said he might offer amendments later in the process. In an email, Tester said he’d be focusing on safety-net programs for farmers, conservation programs and rural broadband investments

“At first glance this bill is a positive step forward, but as we dig deeper into it, I will be listening to Montanans and getting their feedback,” Tester wrote. “Montana producers need long-term certainty to thrive — including protections for soil and water. When farmers and ranchers put land into conservation, they expect the government to hold up their end of the deal.  The Senate Farm Bill reverses damaging decisions that the House made to conservation efforts that have a proven track record of success in Montana.”