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State officials last week released the final version of a new forest action plan that prioritizes forest management and restoration efforts on 3.8 million acres across Montana.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation released the completed 2020 revision to the Montana Forest Action Plan last Tuesday. Paige Cohn, a DNRC spokesperson, said the agency has submitted a final plan to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and the U.S. Forest Service.

Now, officials can begin the process of putting the plan’s strategies and goals into action, she said. Since Dec. 1, the DNRC has been accepting project proposal submissions for cross-boundary forest management work. The submissions will continue to be accepted until Jan. 29.

The new action plan is set to guide forest management and restoration activities across Montana’s 23 million forested acres for the next decade. It calls on agencies to work collaboratively to address forest health conditions and wildfire risks in prioritized areas, even if land ownership varies. States are required to complete such plans periodically to stay eligible for federal money from the State and Private Forestry Program.

A citizen-led Forest Action Advisory Council appointed by the Bullock administration narrowed Montana’s 23 million forested acres down to 3.8 million acres during the plan revision process. The council recommended prioritizing work on those 3.8 million acres.

Landscapes targeted for the work are scattered across the state — primarily the western half. Around 500,000 acres of the designated lands lie within the wildland urban interface. Another 123,000 acres lie within watersheds that provide drinking water.

Designations don’t guarantee projects will occur, according to the plan. However, they indicate there are “significant forest health or wildfire risk issues that warrant prioritization of forest restoration funds.”

Council members were tasked with assessing Montana’s forests and pinpointing areas in need of active restoration, according to Bullock’s executive order.

Council members considered insect and disease risks, wildfire hazards, proximity to the wildland urban interface and roads and vegetation types.

Bullock ordered the advisory council to form in May 2019 in response to changing forest conditions brought about by a warming climate, insect infestations and disease outbreaks in trees. The council members came from conservation organizations, tribes, timber companies and local governments.

Earlier this month, the governor freed up $4.5 million from Montana’s Fire Suppression Fund to put toward the management and restoration projects. A team composed of members of the council are working to score the proposed projects, Cohn said.

Densely crowded forests with a higher prevalence of tree species that have a lower wildfire tolerance have contributed to higher risks of intense wildfires in recent years. These changes are compounded by increasing development in the wildland urban interface and more severe wildfire seasons, according to the plan.

Cohn said those working to implement the new forest action plan are looking forward to continuing their work under a new administration. She emphasized that a wide array of people contributed to the plan.

“We’re excited to reach out to Governor-elect Gianforte,” she said. “At the end of the day, everyone wants to improve forest health and mitigate wildfire risks.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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