Daines details bipartisan forest reform bill

Conservationists, forestry leaders and local elected officials met with Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) in Kalispell Monday morning to discuss the introduction of a new bipartisan reform bill that aims to reduce environmental litigation, increase active forest management on federal lands, accelerate post-wildfire restoration and more.

Daines recently introduced the bill, known as the Emergency Wildlife and Public Safety Act of 2020, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Daines told local leaders during a roundtable discussion that the proposal, which has been a few years in the making, has already received widespread support.

“Either we are going to manage our forests or our forests are going to manage us,” Daines said. “Wildfires don’t know political lines.”

Daines and Feinstein decided to collectively pursue the bill after Montana’s harsh wildfire season in 2017, and the 2018 Camp Fire in California — an event that is considered the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in that state’s history. According to the bill, Montana and California also experience the largest number of lawsuits against forest management projects, “many of which are the product of a collaborative process,” and in both states, “dozens of projects are encumbered by litigation or the mere threat of litigation.”

Daines said in order to limit lawsuits from “frivolous extreme environmental groups,” the bill would direct the U.S. Forest Service to complete three landscape level, collaborative projects in the West to reduce the risk of wildfire. The projects would be proposed by governors and “would be subject to a streamlined environmental review process and certain litigation protections.”

The bill also states the Forest Service would not be required to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service following the “finding of new information” related to wildlife on the Endangered Species List “unless the ‘new information’ is publicly available, peer-reviewed, and consistent with longstanding federal guidelines for scientific information.” The bill states new information on endangered species continues to be a “significant litigation issue for Forest Service activities,” and says this change will promote science-based active management of forests.

WHILE REDUCING possible litigation from environmental groups and organizations is a primary focus of the bill, Daines touched on additional highlights, including those related to restoration and reforestation post wildfire activity.

The measure would create a new statutory tool that states the Forest Service “must do environmental analysis only on the proposed post-fire project and the scenario of not doing a project,” so long as the treatment area is not larger than 10,000 acres. Also, when the agency decides to make the determination that an emergency situation exists, officials would not be required to go through the objections process.

“This will really cut through the red tape,” Daines said.

Aside from these measures, the bill would establish a Prescribed Fire Center in the West to train individuals in prescribed fire methods and more and would implement a forestry workforce development program and more.

The forestry workforce aspect of the bill proved particularly attractive to leaders in the timber industry who were present at the round table discussion.

“We come from a land of natural resources,” said Brent Teske, the mayor of Libby, where logging was once the economic backbone of the city. “But we don’t have much of an industry left over there anymore.”

Mike Cuffe, State Senator for District 2, echoed that sentiment and added this measure is the first one he has been excited about in quite some time.

“Steve has picked up the ball,” Cuffe said.

Teske and Cuffe were two of about a dozen individuals who praised Daines on the bill and offered words of support. Others who were present include F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. President Chuck Roady, Flathead County Fire Service Area Manager Lincoln Chute and Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl.

“This is about workers. This is about wildfires. It’s about wildlife. It’s about watersheds. It’s about protecting our jobs, our way of life here in Montana,” Daines said.

To view the bill in its entirety, go to https://www.daines.senate.gov/download/final-section-by-section-the-emergency-wildfire-and-public-safety-act-of-2020-002