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A Bozeman Republican’s bill eliminating a rarely-used law that gives people a chance to pay for the deferral of a logging project has cleared an initial vote in the Montana House.

House Bill 441, sponsored by Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, passed its first House vote 73-27 on Tuesday.

The bill repeals a law allowing the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to offer a timber conservation license alongside a timber sale if a sale’s opponents request the chance to outbid logging companies. The licenses have only been requested twice in the law’s history, most recently on the 443-acre Limestone West Timber Sale set for state trust lands southeast of Bozeman.

White told lawmakers on Tuesday that offering conservation licenses is a large burden for DNRC and that blocking state logging projects is a bad idea.

“It jeopardizes the forest health and also the timber industry which relies on those timber sales,” White said.

Two Democrats spoke in opposition to the bill, including Rep. Jim Hamilton, D-Bozeman. Hamilton called the bill “short-sighted” and said repealing that law would harm the state’s ability to bring in money for its trust accounts by reducing the number of bidders for timber sales.

“To repeal this law would eliminate the potential to have additional bidders on state trust lands projects,” Hamilton said. “The more bidders we have the more money we produce.”

The bill needs to clear one more vote in the House before it goes to the Senate.

Timber conservation licenses were created by the Legislature in 1999. White said the original intent of the law was to carve out pieces of logging projects for deferrals, not blocking them wholesale.

The Limestone West project is the first time a group requested a deferral of an entire logging operation. DNRC first proposed the sale in 2016 as a way to raise money for the state trusts — in this case, trusts for the school of mines and public buildings. Save Our Gallatin Front asked for a chance to bid for a conservation license on the Limestone sale shortly after logging was proposed. The group worries logging in the area west of Mount Ellis would mar a roadless area that contains important wildlife habitat.

In January, the Montana Land Board approved offering the sale and a 25-year logging deferral for bid. Save Our Gallatin Front immediately sued DNRC and the Land Board, arguing that the terms of the conservation license are unfair and that the auction shouldn’t go forward. DNRC is accepting sealed bids until March 5.

Rep. Robert Farris-Olsen, D-Helena, said lawmakers should wait until after the litigation is over to make any changes to the law. He said Limestone was the first time DNRC dealt with offering a full project deferral, and that litigation immediately tied them up.

“We should let this play out,” Farris-Olsen said.

DNRC director John Tubbs made a similar argument against the bill during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing earlier this month. Tubbs was the only person to oppose the bill at the hearing. Several representatives of the timber industry and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation supported it.

Rep. Tom Welch, R-Dillon, said Tuesday that repealing the law is important to ensuring the state’s timber mills have a steady log supply, an argument that echoed testimony from the bill hearing.

“Only a steady supply of logs harvested from state trust lands and our national forests will ensure the survival of our timber companies,” Welch said.

Fifteen Democrats voted with all Republicans to advance the bill. The five Democrats from Bozeman all voted against the bill.

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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