US Farm Bill could move forest management beyond 'conflict and stagnation', says Montana's governor, expects nomination of 5 million acres of state's timberlands under proposed bill to reduce wildfire threat, increase timber supply to local sawmills

COLUMBIA FALLS, Montana , May 14, 2014 () – The recently passed federal Farm Bill could put more timber in area mills and provide for quicker and better forest management, advocates claim.

Under the bill, individual states may nominate areas impacted by insects and disease to the Secretary of Agriculture for priority forest management.

Gov. Steve Bullock recently nominated about 5 million acres of timberlands across the state, including several regions in the Flathead -- the Swan River watershed, the southern end of the Whitefish Range and areas in the Tally Lake Ranger District.

"There is a lot of work to be done in the woods to reduce fire risk, protect communities and municipal water supplies, and preserve and repair key streams and fisheries," Bullock said. "In addition, our national forests, if sustainably managed, can be valuable carbon stores and play an important role in combating climate change. The health of our integrated wood products industry is critical as we look toward the future -- the forest industry workforce is a vital tool to implement forest restoration projects that address these issues."

The Farm Bill reflects a growing concern nationally about catastrophic wildfires that have consumed millions of acres across the West and insect infestations that have also killed millions of acres of trees. The goal is to more actively manage forests to reduce the threat of large wildfires and bug infestations.

"I believe that the Farm Bill Forestry title represents a tremendous opportunity to move national forest management in Montana beyond the conflict and stagnation of the past two generations," Bullock said.

Bullock's nominations have yet to be approved by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. A final decision is expected by the end of May, but industry leaders are optimistic provisions in the bill can put timber in mills faster and still provide for plenty of public participation.

The bill allows for a "categorical exclusion" process for certain lands up to 3,000 acres in size. Under the law, a collaborative management process would be used to manage the lands for timber and forest health, rather than a much longer formal environmental review, explained Julia Altemus, executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association. The exclusion would have to adhere to environmental laws and individual forest plans, she noted.

The key difference is that a collaborative process is quicker than a full-blown environmental impact statement or an environmental analysis. An exclusion, however, can still be litigated, just like an EIS or EA.

The idea is to bring stakeholders together and get some forest management accomplished, said Paul McKenzie, lands and resource manager for F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. in Columbia Falls. McKenzie said he was optimistic that the bill could lead to timber sales on federal lands as early as the end of the year.

The bill also looks at cost-saving measures, such as sharing expenses for sales with state agencies and changing the way timber sales are designated.

For example, every tree that is not to be cut in a federal timber sale has to be hand-marked with paint, an expensive and time-consuming process. In the future, a contractor could cut a sale based on desired outcomes, such as number of trees per acre.

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(c)2014 Hungry Horse News (Columbia Falls, Mont.)

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