By Tim Ravndal
Infrastructure for handling timber resources in Montana and Idaho has been on the threatened or endangered species list for multiple years.
Several years ago, Montana University bureau of business and economic research did an inventory of lumber production companies. Between 1990 and 2010 there were 28 large sawmills in Montana and Idaho closed.
These mills processed over 900 million board feet of timber, employed 2676 workers, that supported communities and families with good paying jobs. In addition, there were countless numbers of jobs in the logging industry and associated businesses that were impacted by the closures.
As the economic impact continued to rise in communities across the West, causes and solutions were placed high on the priority list of political bodies from local government on up to the level of the United States Congress.
A Congressional Field Hearing was Held in Missoula Montana where Senator Conrad Burns from Montana brought stakeholders together to review natural resource industry and recreation in the communities across the west. Nothing was ever developed at the national level as a result of the hearing.
Timber production from United States Forest Service managed lands continued to see reductions with an increase of environmental lawsuits filed under the National Environmental Policy Act
Later, Montana Senator Jon Tester brought forward what is known as the National Healthy Forest Act. This legislation created a new approach of bringing environmental organizations together with industry to collaborate together for administering the management of national forest timber resources.
The legislation died due to lack of support. Senator Tester reintroduced the legislation but the legislation fails to garner enough congressional support to move forward.
Tort reform was also on the table due to the high level of litigation that was impacting the ability to properly manage forest resources. The amount of timber resources lost due to the epidemic outbreak of the pine beetle is unknown.
Local government officials in timbered counties are working to maintain a forest management program that produces forest health and public safety. In 2016 Montana entered into a “Good Neighbor Program” that is focused on full collaboration. In Idaho there are 10 collaborative partners and 13 in Montana. The Idaho Forest Group is a collaborative group directly engaged in forest management.
Collaboration is in the drivers seat and across the west where compromise is on the table. Compromising with environmental organizations and industry continues to be showcased. Multiple stakeholders in the collaboration process are representatives from environmental groups like the Wilderness Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Wildlife Federation.
Here in Montana, a combination of efforts continue to be analyzed leading forest management back to local control. In Granite County, the county commissioners created the Forest Management Advisory Committee. This committee is comprised of local citizens and are looking at the natural resource management policies in the county.
With many local governments working on planning and growth policy updates, forest management often is left to the State or Federal partners in the cooperating agency programs. In Granite County, the Forest Management Advisory Committee is taking a close look at forest management being incorporated in their growth policy. Unlike most other programs, Granite County is looking at utilizing coordination management to ensure the local citizens have a seat at the table for future management.
A few months ago, Montana Department of Natural Resources along with a representative of the Montana Logging Association brought the citizens of Granite County a presentation on actions and planning on the Beaverhead National Forest. The “Good Neighbor Authority” program was highlighted, and extensive discussion on collaborative efforts included in the program were described to the audience.
A representative of Congressman Gianforte was there, as were officials from the United States Forest Service. None of the County Commissioners were present for comment.
Forest management has been in some ways a 3 ring circus with the utilization of the 3 C’s. First preferred management is the engagement of “Cooperating Agency Status” USFS prefers this management scenario in which they are the lead agency and develop all planning.
Even though the National Environment Policy Act provides for participation in planning from scoping to final, it is difficult to follow let alone participate in the process when many decisions are made outside of the public process.
Second option in management is the new push by environmental organizations called “Collaboration.” In this scenario, the lead agency compiles a membership consisting of stakeholders in the natural resource management. Environmental groups seek compromise from the timber industries within a stewardship regulatory scheme of forest management.
Third and citizen preferred management option is “Coordination” where local government is provided a seat at the table to develop a resource management plan. In this scenario, no final action can be made by the federal or state agencies if the plan is not in compliance with the local resource management plan. In multiple counties across the west, coordination has been successful in enhancing access to public lands and proper management of natural resources.
A member of the Forest Management Advisory Committee brought forward notice that they were working on coordination. It is desired by the committee to include a resource plan and coordination into the county growth policy. The representative from the Department of Natural Resources repeated multiple times that Montana is primarily involved in collaboration.