By Laura Lundquist
Federal and state leaders laud not only the ability of Montanans to hash out tough issues but also the way collaboration has gotten several timber projects into production.
That was evident from the speeches of Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Jim Hubbard, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary, who kicked off the Montana Forest Collaboration Network’s annual two-day workshop in Missoula.
The two men praised the efforts of Montana’s collaborative groups, represented by the 120 participants in the audience, that have put many hours into finding agreement on which forest tracts have “the right acres in the right places” to sustain commercial timber projects.
“In an age where political polarization often threatens the progress of important policy, you all quietly keep coming back to the table, year after year,” Cooney said. “You find sensible paths forward by engaging diverse local perspectives, treating one another like neighbors in advancing plans that ultimately can achieve durable returns for our forests and our communities.”
Cooney said that kind of cooperation was one reason Gov. Steve Bullock was able to make Montana the first state to sign a stewardship agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, allowing the state to negotiate with federal, tribal and private partners to thin trees or use prescribed burns regardless of who manages the area. Thus, foresters can focus on any region that might be important for reducing wildfire risk near communities. Yet, only seven other states have signed shared stewardship agreements.
Hubbard said being able to work across multiple jurisdictions is necessary to do work at a large enough scale to be effective at slowing a potential wildfire. But when it comes to wildfire, thinning projects go only so far.
“There’s no way in the world we’re going to protect all the communities that are at risk of fire in the West. There’s no way in the world we’re going to treat all the acres that need treatment. So which ones are we going to go for? That’s the shared priority, to decide what we want to do together,” Hubbard said. “Also, the community has to be engaged, because if the community isn’t paying attention, all that land treatment is not necessarily going to reduce their risk very much.”
Bullock was also among the first to sign a Good Neighbor agreement. The 2014 Farm Bill created the Good Neighbor Authority to allow states to log timber on federal land adjacent to state or private land undergoing thinning operations. The 2018 Farm Bill broadened that authority.
By Nicky Ouellet
As fire season winds down, managers are intentionally setting fire to brush piles, slash and even large sections of forests in an effort to prevent out of control wildfires in future seasons. A group of scientists from Montana and Idaho recently published a paper arguing that strategies like these should be part of a radical rethinking of how people in the West live with fire.
Dave McWethy says Montana has passed a tipping point. Summers are hotter and drier, which means fire season lasts longer. Our approach to put every single fire out, like we’ve done for the past 100 years, just isn’t realistic anymore.
“The big take home message is that we can’t respond the way we have in the past to wildfire,” McWethy said.
McWethy is an assistant professor of earth sciences at Montana State University. In a recent article in Nature Sustainability, McWethy and his coauthors argue that people living in the West need to reconsider how we live with, and even harness, fire if we want to continue living here in the future.
“We have to make changes. And one of the great things we have to do that, is how we used to use fire as a tool in the past,” McWethy said.
McWethy’s team found a model in the Netherlands, where instead of fighting rising sea levels with taller and taller dams, engineers built an infrastructure system designed to work with water instead of fight it.
“And instead of rebuilding in the same way that they have in the past, they’ve decided to transform how they accept or live with these hazards… It’s coming back to this idea that fire is part of Western landscapes, it was in the past it is today and it’s going to be in the future. And I think becoming comfortable with the fact that with warming temps and a longer fire season, the best way we can move into the future is accept fire as a natural process, and start to think about how we could use fire itself to safeguard our communities,” McWethy said.
A few more timber projects may move ahead on Montana state forests, even where they are in critical habitat for endangered species, under terms of a new state-federal conservation agreement. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released the final draft of an EIS that outlines management guidelines for more than 620,000 acres of state forests.
A set of newly published studies evaluated nearly forty years of data on the impacts of biomass utilization on soil, tree, and plant recovery and found minimal impact using certain forest harvesting techniques.
The experiments, initiated in 1974, were conducted by scientists from the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station on the Coram Experimental Forest, located in Northwestern Montana. In order to evaluate the ecological consequences of large-scale biomass harvesting, scientists implemented three different tree removal techniques on the landscape – group selection (remove small groups of trees), clearcut (remove all timber), and shelterwood (retain some trees for shade and structure) – all using cable logging. On all three sites the soil was left relatively undisturbed from the harvesting and varying amounts of downed wood were left to promote soil organic matter and wildlife habitat. For some sites, prescribed fire was applied to reduce fuels and fire danger. Scientists then tracked these sites over 38 years to provide a contemporary look at the long-term impacts of biomass utilization on forest productivity (e.g., tree growth).