State Agency Looks to More Logging, Improved Forest Health

HELENA, Mont. — Montana’s forestry agency is working with federal, local and private organizations to increase logging on national forests to improve forest health and decrease the risk of disease and catastrophic fires.

State lawmakers are supporting a $2.2 million request from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to hire people to help implement the Good Neighbor Authority program.

Montana’s forestlands are deteriorating because of insects and disease, fire seasons are lasting longer and the numbers of acres burned has increased 15-fold over the past 20 years, Forestry Division Administrator Sonya Germann told a House appropriations subcommittee in January. Poor forest health impacts drinking and irrigation water, recreational assets, homes, communities and fish and wildlife habitat, she said.

The Good Neighbor Authority, created in the 2014 Farm Bill, allows the DNRC to contract timber sales on U.S. Forest Service land, with some of the proceeds being used to treat diseased trees, clear dead trees and improve fish and wildlife habitat. The DNRC has to follow the same federal environmental laws the Forest Service would have to meet in offering sales.

“When I look at this program I think this is probably the best thing the government has created in I don’t know how long, because it’s brought in partners, industries are investing in it,” Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck told the subcommittee. Lincoln County invested $10,000, he said, and hired a county forester.

Libby’s economy has been devastated by the reduction in logging projects on the Kootenai National Forest, which also has caused fuels to build up, he said.

“The last three years we’ve just had devastating, catastrophic fire up there,” he said. “We’ve lost homes.”

“It’s not all about logging, it’s about public safety, it’s about forest health and obviously the economy comes into play too,” Peck said.

The DNRC has received financial pledges from the timber industry, business and conservation partners and just over $550,000 from the U.S. Forest Service to help start the program. The state agency bid out two projects last fall and many more are in the works, Germann said.