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Ranking behind only wheat and cattle, Montana's third largest cash crop is timber. Thirty of our 56 counties have timber processing facilities, and 11 of them are east of the continental divide. Statistics for 2004 show about 9,100 Montanans were employed by the timber industry, earning an average of $16 an hour, plus benefits and totaling more than $35,000 a year.

This is the centennial year of the founding of the U.S. Forest Service, which historically played a vital role in supplying the building material to a growing and prosperous nation. Its founder, President Theodore Roosevelt, articulated his vision for federal forest management at a 1903 meeting of the Society of American Foresters in Washington, D.C. Here is what he said:

"And now, first and foremost, you can never afford to forget for a moment what is the object of our forest policy, for that object is not to preserve the forests because they are beautiful, though that is good enough in itself; nor is it because they are refuges for the wild creatures of the wilderness, though that, too, is good in itself; but the primary objective of our forest policy, as of the land policy of the United States, is the making of prosperous homes. It is a part of the traditional policy of home making in our country. Every other consideration comes as secondary…"

Productive state lands

That statement no longer characterizes the mission of the Forest Service. It might, however, still describe our state forest management practices in Montana. The state of Montana owns about 725,000 acres of forest land. From that land more than 50 million board feet of timber is harvested annually, a volume which scientific studies confirm can be sustained forever. Timber removed from state lands is done in complete compliance with all state and federal environmental protections. The income from the sale of this timber is placed in the state educational trust to help pay for our public schools and universities.

By contrast, much of Montana's federal forest land is off limits to timber management. Of the 11 million federal acres on which timber presumably is available for harvest activities, a maximum of 176 million board feet of timber per year has been harvested in the most recent five years. The annual five-year average is about 130 million. But dead and dying timber continues to steadily accumulate in our national forests. The increasing fire hazard due to the building backlog of dead and dying trees on federal forest land threatens us more each year. The mismanagement is worsened by the estimated 200 million board feet of federal timber in Montana currently hog-tied in environmental lawsuits that drag on and on, threatening mill closures and adding to the fire hazard.

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Wiser management

T.R. correctly saw forests as a natural resource. As long as the sun shines and the rain falls forests will always grow. Their wise management can enhance wildlife habitat, improve water and air quality, reduce fire risk and provide clean and sustainable jobs.

A better job can be done in managing our national forests. My guess is that there are many frustrated Forest Service employees who would agree. There could be no more fitting tribute to the legacy of our "conservation president," a century after his presidency, than to again recognize and rededicate our forests to the wealth, progress and safety of our country.

Bob Brown, former Montana legislator and secretary of state, is a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula.

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