Daines bill would undo 9th Circuit ruling on thinning

Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines will introduce legislation today to remove a potential roadblock to forest management projects on federal land.

Daines’ bill would remove a requirement — imposed as a result of a lawsuit five years ago — that the Forest Service consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service on land management plans when “new information” emerges about potential effects on endangered species.

In practice, the requirement means the Forest Service must reconsult with the Fish and Wildlife Service on forest management plans that have often been in place for years, even when a specific project isn’t in question.

That takes resources away from other missions, even though the Forest Service would always consult on specific project if new information about endangered species surfaces, Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen has said.

At issue is a 2015 case in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Forest Service v. Cottonwood Environmental Law Center.

In that case, the court found that the Forest Service hadn’t adequately consulted with the Fish and Wildlife Service about potential threats to the habitat of the Canada lynx.

Since then, Daines has been trying to overturn the case through legislation. He has allies on the Democratic side and has pointed to the Obama administration’s objections to the scope of the decision.

Both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have said they agree with his goal. Still, Daines’ efforts haven’t gone far, as he looks for a legislative vehicle and works around the objections of environmental groups to gain Democratic backers.

A spokeswoman for Daines said he’s still working on broader legislation with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to address the Cottonwood decision and boost forest thinning that land managers say will reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire. Environmental lawsuits are a top reason for delays in such projects, Daines has said.

“Even the Obama Administration agreed that the Cottonwood decision was flawed and crippled forest management. This law has tied the hands of our land managers, prevented them from following the best available science in management decisions, and diverted resources for an exercise yielding no conservation benefit,” Daines said in a statement.

“By cutting unnecessary red tape, we will improve the health of our forests, reduce the risk of severe wildfires, advance wildlife habitat projects, and support good paying timber jobs,” he said.

The bill would also apply to BLM. Co-sponsors include Republican Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo of Idaho and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota.

His bill has support from the timber industry, as well as from sportsmen’s groups such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the National Wild Turkey Federation, which said in a statement that the reconsultation requirement results in “slow and costly delays and even failure to appropriately manage our national forests.”

The Cottonwood Environmental Law Center has said the Canada lynx in question in the lawsuit became endangered in part because of inadequate Forest Service land management plans, and that reconsultation shouldn’t be limited to one specific project at a time (E&E Daily, Feb. 12).