Two bills maintain that the state constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment justifies a demand for more state authority to manage federal forests.
On Monday, the House Natural Resources committee heard the bills that would direct the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to take a more active role in forest management on federal lands, particularly in and around populated areas.
Sen. Bradley Hamlett, R-Cascade, and Rep. Pat Connell, R-Hamilton, are co-sponsoring Senate Bills 201 and 217. Connell pushed for both bills based upon the fires of 2000, which burned a good part of Ravalli County.
SB 201 would direct the DNRC to advocate including Montana in a Forest Service good-neighbor policy. It would allow the state forester to treat insect-infested stands and reduce forest fuels to minimize fire risk and intensity in forested areas where people have chosen to build, known as the wildland-urban interface.
The Good Neighbor Forestry Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate in February, would allow for cooperative agreements between the federal government and state foresters. DNRC director John Tubbs said the Good Neighbor policy would achieve the intent of SB 201, even if SB 201 didn’t pass.
SB 201 would also give the state attorney general the authority to intervene in litigation on any forest management project, even outside the wildland-urban interface. A fiscal note predicted the bill would cost around $9,000 annually for litigation.
Some who live in the wildland-urban interface don’t create a defensible space, so SB 201 would help in national forest areas and ensure a clean environment by preventing fires, Hamlett said.
A recent Headwaters Economics report found that a majority of Montana’s wildland-urban interface property was undeveloped. It concluded that limiting that development would be a cost-effective way of controlling future firefighting costs and ensuring public safety.
Tubbs said Colorado and Utah have cooperative forestry agreements, but Montana has a different organizational structure.
“We have one forester that provides advice and expertise – we don’t have a team to do cuts nor does he bid out projects,” Tubbs said. “If this went into place, we might have to have a conversation about how we’d do it.”
Tubbs said working collectively with other northwestern states might be more effective.
“Individually, I don’t think Montana can tip over the federal government,” Tubbs said.
SB 217 would provide the DNRC with similar authority but would relate to areas surrounding watersheds.
Hamlett said he had talked to the forest service regional forester and didn’t like what he heard.
“I look to watersheds for water. The forest service looks at this one for wildlife, this for wilderness, this for timber supply,” Hamlett said. “They went into subcategories and got out of watersheds for water.”
SB 217 would direct the DNRC to identify zones of bug infestation for treatment prioritization. Recent studies indicate bark beetle outbreaks do not substantially increase the risk of active crown fires in lodgepole pine and spruce, although research is ongoing. Studies also show that thinning won’t prevent fires and in some cases doesn’t diminish intensity.
Although the bill addresses watersheds that serve as water supplies for communities, it covers all watersheds. Rep. JD Pomnichowski, D-Bozeman, pointed out that that essentially covers the entire state since every area is part of a watershed.
Rep. Kathleen Williams, D-Bozeman, questioned some of the hyperbole in the bill, including a section that said wildfire would leave “tens of thousands of residents without drinking water.”
“I don’t think we’re where you want to be on some of this wording,” Williams said.
Both bills passed the Senate virtually unopposed. They must now pass the committee and the House.
Laura Lundquist can be reached at 582-2638 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @llundquist.