BONNER – Looking over the bluff at Milltown State Park, Gov. Steve Bullock said a new state forestry management effort should improve more than just timberlands.
“It’s not just timber mills and forest health,” Bullock said of his Forests In Focus initiative on Friday. “It’s managing state parks and keeping their forests healthy. It’s looking at our restoration strategy and working directly with our federal partners to make sure we get to priority landscapes and get projects done right.”
In Milltown’s case, a small-scale project set for this fall would thin young Douglas fir and lodgepole pines and give more space to larger ponderosa pine and larch.
Larger efforts in the $3 million initiative include road culvert repair work for fisheries in Fish Creek west of Alberton and near Red Lodge. About $1 million of the fund is matching funds for future work with the U.S. Forest Service on 5 million acres that Bullock designated as “priority landscapes” under a provision of the federal 2014 Farm Bill.
“I’ve heard it reported that we’re going to cut 5 million acres under that designation, and that’s just not the truth,” said John Tubbs, director of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “There are categorical exclusions (that reduce the amount of environmental analysis on projects) we’ll use in a few places, but it won’t be to log all 5 million acres. It will be more for clearing some juniper trees from a valley bottom. Larger projects will go through regular NEPA analysis.”
Tubbs said the Forest Service has had little extra money to put toward its management of the acreages that Bullock designated. That could change if Congress approves a new way of funding wildland firefighting, which has crippled the federal agency’s non-fire-activity spending over the past decade.
Meanwhile, the state intends to go forward in three other areas of the Forests in Focus plan. They include partnerships with tribal and private landowners, industry retention efforts and combined projects crossing state agency boundaries. Milltown State Park was an example of the latter, where the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department was handling contracts for forestry work usually managed by the DNRC.
“Our forestry program is doing really well right now,” Tubbs said. “But the mills are having to look to state and private timber. We’re looking to get the Forest Service back in the game. We can’t support seven mills on just state and private timber alone.”
Bullock also got an update on the development of Milltown State Park, which has stalled because of a dispute over access to its main river confluence area. A road leading to the site crosses property belonging to International Paper Corp., which has disputed the environmental conditions of the land. The delay has annoyed local officials and residents, who hope the new river access will take pressure off unofficial boat put-ins.
“We’re exploring ways to enhance that conversation,” Bullock said on Friday. “I know it’s been a point of frustration, but we want to make sure it’s done right. It may take a call from the governor.”