Limestone West Logging Project // Triple Tree

Save Our Gallatin Front has raised enough cash for a 25-year logging deferral south of Bozeman.

The law a local group used to block a logging project southeast of Bozeman is no more.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, on Thursday signed into law House Bill 441, which repeals a law that offered groups opposed to a timber sale on state land a chance to outbid timber companies to block logging for a certain time.

His signature comes two months after Save Our Gallatin Front outbid a timber company to block logging on 443 acres of state trust land south of town for 25 years. The new law doesn’t affect that deferral.

The bill was backed by the timber industry and passed by wide margins in the House and Senate.

Bullock signed it despite the fact that Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation director John Tubbs lobbied against it at committee hearings in both the state House and Senate.

Marissa Perry, a Bullock spokeswoman, said in an email that DNRC opposed the bill during the Legislature because of a pending lawsuit filed by Save Our Gallatin Front in an attempt to reduce the price it would have to pay for the conservation license. The lawsuit has since been withdrawn.

Perry said Bullock “recognized the significant costs and uncertainty the conservation license provision creates for maintaining the health and resiliency of forested State Trust Lands and meeting the long term fiduciary duties of the Trust.”

“He believes starting with a clean slate will allow for the Legislature to address local community concerns and forest management on Trust Lands in a way that better balances the interests of all,” Perry said.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman. He said repealing the license option would protect the state’s ability to offer timber sales and keep the sales from being held up.

“I think it’s really a good thing that we repealed that conservation license,” White said.

The option created by the Legislature in 1999 had only been used twice — once to block a small portion of a timber sale in northwestern Montana and on the Limestone West Timber Sale that was offered for bid earlier this year.

First proposed in 2016, the Limestone West project called for logging on about 443 acres of trust land west of Mount Ellis. Nearby residents raised concerns that the logging and roadbuilding involved would spoil an untouched portion of the Gallatin Front.

The opposition to the project became the organization Save Our Gallatin Front. It reserved the right to bid for a conservation license in 2016. DNRC set the term of the license at 25 years. Save Our Gallatin Front bid about $400,000 and beat RY Timber — the only other bidder — by about $25,000, becoming the only group to use the law to stop an entire logging project.

Tim Tousignant, the leader of the group, said the governor’s decision to eliminate the conservation license option was disappointing. He said he was glad his group was able to take advantage of the law but that it was unfortunate lawmakers “saw that as a threat as opposed to an opportunity to include more people in the process of perhaps bidding on the resources.”

“They’ve eliminated a voice for local citizens to engage in what happens in their communities,” Tousignant said. “I think that’s unfortunate and in some ways deplorable.”

On the other side, the timber industry is rejoicing. Julia Altemus, director of the Montana Wood Products Association, said the industry is grateful that the governor signed the bill, and that his decision to sign it is a significant statement. She added that repealing the law should keep state sales out of courtrooms.

“It’s just getting back to business as usual, which is very important,” Altemus said.

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

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