By Michael Wright - May 21, 2019 - Originally published in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Montana’s governor has formed a council to examine the state’s forested lands and plan for the future of those lands, including identifying places that need work to deal with wildfire risk.
In an executive order signed Monday, Gov. Steve Bullock outlined a number of priorities for the 21-person Montana Forest Action Advisory Council.
The panel is charged with assessing the condition of the state’s forested land and crafting a plan by fall 2020 that identifies areas in need of restoration or management through activities like logging. It’s also meant to develop ways to accomplish “landscape-style forest restoration” that was included in the governor’s Forests in Focus 2.0 Initiative, which was released in September.
The order said the state’s fire seasons are growing longer and more severe and that almost half of the state’s forests have been hit by insect and disease outbreaks.
“We can and we must work together for the well being of our forests and to reduce wildfire risk,” Bullock said in a news release.
The council includes an eight-person leadership council and 13 general members. It includes people from the timber industry, conservation groups, local governments, a tribal timber group and a University of Montana professor.
Bullock’s executive order listed 14 duties for the panel, most of them focused on crafting a broad long-term strategy for managing the forested land in the state and building on collaborative partnerships that have supported some timber projects. It also calls for identifying places that need “active forest restoration” to improve forest health or better prepare places for wildfire.
The panel will hold between six and eight public meetings across the state between now and September 2020, when it has to deliver a final plan to Bullock. A final plan will be an update to the original Montana Forest Action Plan, which was completed in 2010 and defined goals for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s forestry bureau.
Sonya Germann, DNRC state forester, said the new plan will look more closely at what can be done on federal lands to prepare places for wildfire. One option they might turn to is the Good Neighbor Authority, a program that allows DNRC to carry out federal timber projects. The 2019 Montana Legislature passed a bill that directs money into the program and also OK’d hiring full-time staff for it.
Germann said DNRC has already done work on two timber sales through the program, and five more will go out for bids in the coming months. She added that all land ownership types are on the table because conditions ripe for fire don’t discriminate.
“These conditions don’t stop at the jurisdictional boundary,” Germann said.
Germann said the people who were appointed are “known collaborators,” meaning they’ve worked together on projects like this in the past. The group includes more than a half-dozen timber industry reps, but also people from conservation groups like Defenders of Wildlife, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Montana Wilderness Association and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
“A lot of them are working together as we speak on collaborative groups to find solutions,” Germann said.
But some see the members of the group and expect the panel will just push for more timber harvest. Mike Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said it’s likely the committee will lean toward logging as the solution to any problems, even among the conservation group reps.
“The bottom line is you can just tell from the members he appointed what they’re going to recommend,” Garrity said.
Tom DeLuca, a University of Montana professor and member of the council’s leadership group, said he sees the group as balanced, particularly because of the inclusion of the conservation groups.
He said the resulting plan should represent the intersection between federal and state forest management. He said that he will bring a breadth of knowledge on the latest forest research, both from university and government scientists.
He sees the plan as something that will guide management decisions for the next decade, and he said it will need to ensure meeting timber production obligations happens alongside protecting the environment.
“It’s going to be really important and hopefully we’ll get it right,” DeLuca said.