Daines rallies support for wildfire logging bill

After meeting with timber, fire and wildlife supporters in Kalispell on Monday, Sen. Steve Daines predicted a new forest management bill he’s co-sponsored could be law in four months.

“We spent the time to get a strong, bipartisan launch,” Daines said on Monday. “There’s a high probability we’ll have a hearing when we go back in September, and the goal is to get the bill signed into law by the end of the year.”

Republican Daines and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California introduced the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act on Aug. 4. It has since picked up two Republican and six Democratic co-sponsors of a companion bill in the House of Representatives, including Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte.

The legislation has four major timber initiatives: a trio of 75,000-acre wildfire mitigation projects proposed by governors and chosen by the Department of Agriculture; expansion of the use of categorical exclusions from environmental review for 3,000-acre linear fuel breaks along roads, trails and power line corridors; a $100 million grant fund to pay for the removal of low-value hazardous wood that could be used as biomass fuel for energy production; and relaxed environmental review of salvage logging after wildfires.

Daines said he found compromise with Feinstein on the size of the categorical exclusion (CE) projects, which he compared to similar provisions that passed in the 2014 Farm Bill and a 2018 budget measure.

“I would have liked to see them larger, but we have to find a CE number that would work for both sides,” Daines said. “It really provides for a more pragmatic and balanced approach as it applies to NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act). That was the compromise size that allows us the ability to get an outcome and get something signed into law.”

The bill would also reduce opportunities to challenge timber projects when new information arises that might involve Endangered Species Act protections. Those provisions are aimed at nullifying a judicial ruling known as the Cottonwood Decision, which required the U.S. Forest Service to reopen consultations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when new information indicates projects could hurt protected plants or animals. The move could also affect a more recent court decision requiring the Forest Service to reconsider its failure to enforce forest road closures, which Daines argues has blocked work on almost 100 forest projects.

Representatives from the Boone and Crocket Club and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation joined lumber mill owners and elected officials from Flathead and Lincoln counties at Monday’s roundtable meeting with Daines to support the bill.

Critics of the legislation include the Wilderness Society and the Center for Biological Diversity, which both oppose what they call the weakening of environmental and public review of forest management.

“This legislation is a wish list from the timber industry, and would create more controversy and legal uncertainty,” said Susan Jane Brown of the Western Environmental Law Center. “The Feinstein-Daines bill will further undermine public trust in the credibility of the federal land management agencies, which is already at an all-time low.”