Unlike Steven Krichbaum in his Aug. 31 guest opinion, I applaud the bipartisan efforts of U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Diane Feinstein to work together and attempt to end the gridlock in the management of our federally-owned forests. For the past quarter-century, we have tried the hands-off approach to forest management and it’s not working. Paralyzed by litigation and bureaucracy, this approach has only contributed to unhealthy forests and economically-depressed rural communities. It’s time for something different.
We need better forest management. According to the National Insect and Diseases Risk Map, Montana ranks third nationally for the percentage of treed acres at risk. Twenty-one percent of the state's 36 million forested acres could lose at least a quarter of trees to insect and disease by 2027. Nearly 70 percent of federally-owned forests need some form of treatment, whether through prescribed fire or mechanical removal. If we value our public lands, the worst thing we can do is walk away and fail to use forest management tools — logging, thinning or prescribed fire — that are based in science.
According to the USDA’s Forest Resources of the United States, for every one merchantable cubic foot of wood sent to a mill in Montana, six cubic feet die in the forest. According to the same data, as timber harvesting declined 60 percent between 1991 and 2016, the volume of dead and dying trees have increased 263 percent. Under the current broken system we are allowing our national forests to burn and die.
Of course it is common sense to encourage homeowners to be “firewise” and mitigate risks to their properties, just as we should expect the Forest Service to address the 80 million acres of National Forest System lands that are at immediate risk of catastrophic wildfire, insects and disease. At least 43 million homes in the United States are located within the “wildland urban interface”. Many of these homes, especially in Montana, are located in proximity to national forests, which should make accelerating treatments on federal lands a high priority among elected officials and public agencies.
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To their credit, Daines and Feinstein agree on the need to accelerate treatments on overgrown forests where targeted thinning and timber removal can help reduce heavy fuel loads on national forests. The proposal can help expedite forest projects that can provide significant protection to communities, including treatments around roads, trails and transmission lines. The proposal could also help promote the utilization of low-value wood material as biomass that is converted to renewable energy. I suspect most would agree this is a better alternative than allowing the material to burn in the forest.
Timber is often a byproduct of forest restoration. Timber supports family wage jobs as well as primary and secondary manufacturing in Montana. It can also pay for local public services, the maintenance of forest roads and improvements to recreational amenities.
Forest management also provides access to public lands, and enables firefighters and public safety officials to respond to emergencies. Yet, as taxpayers, we are receiving few of those benefits with the current litigation driven approach to forest management. In 2017, the amount of timber tied up in lawsuits (355 million board feet) was more than region’s entire timber harvest of 321 million board feet.
To help reduce the intensity of wildfires and protect lives, homes and our forests, we should support policies that promote defensible space near homes as well as those that accelerate forest management on federal lands. Doing nothing only leads to more of our forests being lost to wildfire, insects and disease. It’s time to give our federal land managers the tools and resources to use the best practices and science available to restore the health of our communities and public lands.