MT delegation cheers insertion of forest-management language into spending bill

Posted at 5:42 PM, Mar 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-21 19:42:23-04

Language making it easier to approve forest-thinning projects and pay firefighting costs will be in a compromise spending bill that should pass this week, the two Republicans in Montana’s congressional delegation said Wednesday.

“The bottom line is that after a five-year battle … we have a significant forest-management and fire-funding wins,” Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., told MTN News.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester also praised some of the forest-management changes, including one that would fund firefighting like disaster aid, thus freeing up Forest Service money to process timber sales and perform other management duties.

“This is a major step forward, and I know this critical wildfire funding fix will allow us to better manage our forests,” he said in a statement late Wednesday.

The forest-management language has been inserted into a huge, $1.3 trillion spending bill that’s expected to pass Congress this week, to fund the federal government through September.

Yet while the delegation cheered the inclusion of the language, Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte said it doesn’t go far enough to block what he called “frivolous lawsuits” by “environmental extremists” that tie up timber sales and other logging projects on national forests.

“There is no reform for equal access to justice, which has been manipulated by environmental extremists to tie up common-sense projects,” he told MTN News in a teleconference. “And there is no arbitration of projects, which would allow everyone to come to the table, have their voice heard, but would end frivolous lawsuits on projects that go through the process.”

Those changes are in a bill co-sponsored by Gianforte and passed by the House, but that has stalled in the Senate.

The forest-management language inserted into the spending bill includes:

  • A partial repeal of the 2015 “Cottonwood” court decision, which required more consultation with federal wildlife officials on land-management decisions.

Gianforte said it’s his understanding that the language repeals the decision only on certain projects approved in the last 15 years.

  • Streamlining the implementation of logging projects that reduce “hazardous fuels” in forests.
  • Streamlining the Forest Service’s ability to allow clearing of trees and other vegetation near power lines or other infrastructure.
  • The change in funding for firefighting. Instead of coming out of the Forest Service budget and reducing the available money for managing various projects, firefighting money would be approved like separate disaster funding.

“It allows the Forest Service to use more of its funds on timber management, forest management and recreation programs rather than fire suppression,” Daines said. “This is something we’ve been fighting for, for a very long time.”

The delegation also noted that the spending bill will reauthorize funding for the Secure Rural Schools program, which means $25 million for forested counties in Montana for schools and roads, for 2018 and 2019.