Daines, Rosendale talk forest management at Western Caucus roundtable in Bozeman

Source: Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Montana’s Republican U.S. senator said in an interview on Thursday that when it comes to the federal government’s management of national forests, the single biggest problem is the precedent that resulted from the 2015 “Cottonwood decision.”

“We’ll be much better off in Montana if we have the loggers back in the forests instead of the lawyers. Right now it’s the lawyers who are dominating forest management,” said Sen. Steve Daines, host of Thursday’s Summer Western Caucus Member Roundtable at the Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture.

The meeting drew at least 15 Republican members of Congress, who were briefed on top issues in Montana and the West. Panelists talked about the recent flooding in Yellowstone National Park, the state of farming, wolf and grizzly bear conservation and forest management.

Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly, American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duval, Montana Outfitters and Guides Association Executive Director Mac Minard and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director Amanda Kaster were among the speakers.

During the discussion, Daines highlighted efforts to reverse precedent set in a 2015 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling known as the “Cottonwood’’ decision, which revolved around the federal government’s management of critical Canada lynx habitat.

Supporters of the ruling argue that it has improved habitat protections for endangered species, but opponents often point out that it has resulted in lengthier and more extensive environmental review processes that delay timber work on millions of acres of federal land.

Earlier this summer, Daines’ bill to reverse the court decision passed out of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources with a 16 to 4 bipartisan vote. Now it’s headed to the Senate floor.

Brian Yablonski, CEO of the Property and Environment Research Center, said we are living in the age of megafires, which burn through 100,000 acres or more. Because of that, lives, homes, watersheds, economies and wildlife habitat depend on good forest management.

Climate change is a root driver of fire severity in America, as is topography, but the biggest factor is the legacy of fire suppression by the U.S. Forest Service, Yablonski said.

“The Biden administration recently released a 10-year wildfire crisis strategy to treat an additional 50 million acres over the next decade, and we can talk about whether that’s ambitious enough or not… but Houston, we have a problem — wildfires are fast, and the government moves very slow,” he said.

Yablonski said lengthy National Environmental Policy Act reviews and the Cottonwood decision are two of the biggest barriers in the way of ambitious forest management, as they’ve both added red tape and allowed certain groups to weaponize the courts.

Montana DNRC Director Kaster pointed out that in the case of the Elmo 2 fire, which has burned through a little over 21,000 acres west of Flathead Lake, the behavior of the blaze changed when it hit a parcel of state land that had been thinned.

“That’s just one example of many that shows these investments that we’re making, using authorities like the good neighbor authority, and using our Forest Action Plan — those things are making a difference,” she said.

DNRC has been filing amicus briefs and declarations of support for the litigated timber projects of its federal partners, as the department believes the work must get done, and it must get done at a faster pace, Kaster said.

Montana’s Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, who introduced a bill to reverse the Cottonwood decision to the House last year, said in an interview that there are dozens of timber sales that are under litigation on Forest Service land in Montana.

Rosendale said Equal Access to Justice laws give litigants the ability to tie up timber sales and be rewarded for doing so, and that he is reviewing ways to tweak them.

Rosendale said he wants to ensure the laws are not “being abused as a tool to enrich organizations, to drain resources from the Forest Service and to cause the mismanagement of so much of our forest land.”