As flames dance around the region and the state’s $30 million wildfire budget has been depleted, Montanans have been left wondering how long they will be suffering from the effects of the fires and what can be done to improve fire conditions.
It’s a question Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., brought to the Senate floor on Sept. 6, as he worked to raise awareness and draw attention to the fires burning around the state. In his address, he talked about the plight of Mineral County.
He said that of the 30 top wildfires in the nation, 28 of them are in Montana and the crisis raging across the state is not too much water or hurricanes, but fire.
“It’s smoke filling the air and filling our lungs — it’s communities being evacuated, Montanans standing on the side of the road looking at the fires moving towards their homes and we’ve seen the loss of homes and many structures and looking at the tons of fuels just lying on the forest floor waiting for a spark to ignite. In this year alone, over 1,600 fires have burned nearly 1 million acres have in Montana — that’s nearly the size of the entire state of Delaware,” he said.
He also mentioned that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke both came to Montana a few weeks ago to see the impact of the wildfires when they visited the Lolo Peak Fire.
“Preventing wildfires is impossible, but we can do much more to lessen their severity and impact,” Daines said. “Seven million federally controlled acres in Montana are at a high risk of wildfire. Five million acres have been designated for accelerated management due to insect infestation and disease. And yet, since 1990, Montana has lost over 40 percent of its forestry workforce and two-thirds of its mills.”
He then continued his speech and mentioned this county, “let’s talk about Mineral County, Montana. Mineral County was founded in 1914. The county is home to just over 4,000 Montanans and is well known for its dense forests and abundant resources. The first sawmill came to the area around the turn of the 20th century — with multiple others following suit. For decades, the timber industry thrived — Montanans worked hard and earned good money in the timber industry, but in the early 1990s things changed.
“Across our state, environmental lawsuits became a barrier to timber contracts that were awarded to Montana small businesses. A community that once thrived on the abundant resources surrounding them now sits with one of the highest unemployment rates in our state. Today, Mineral County has just a single lumber mill. And folks there today are watching the very resources that supported their grandparents — burn. So far, over 25,000 acres have been torched in Mineral County this fire season, and the fires continue to burn.”
Daines then talked about the mismanagement of federal forests and the impact “radical environmentalists” have had on Montana communities because forest management projects are often held up in litigation, “our inability to act and treat these acres further deteriorates the health of our forests and the communities that rely on them.”
“We are tired of being told that others know better than us while we watch our forests and grasslands burn every summer, our mills close, our neighbors lose jobs and our communities suffer from the lack of management of our federal public lands,” he said.
He referenced the National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA, and how it was established to provide guidance for land managers to analyze all project alternatives and allow for public comment. But the process is currently so bogged down with additional steps and litigation that some projects now take years to get through, if at all.
“When it takes this long to analyze whether or not to even start a project, the forests continue to get more and more overstocked, unhealthy and prone to wildfire. Something needs to be done to streamline the process while allowing more collaboration between stakeholders. We cannot wait any longer,” he said.
As he wrapped up his speech, Sen. Daines called on his colleagues to join in the effort to put Montana loggers back to work: “The bottom line: either we manage the forests, or the forests are going to manage us.”
The speech was well received by timber industry professionals in Mineral County, including Jim Arney, President of Forest Biometrics, LLC, from St. Regis who stated the importance of supporting initiatives with factual information about how to manage healthy forests. One step in this process is the need to create a forestwide inventory in Mineral County.
“This inventory is an essential foundation for professional forest planning. Currently, no forest inventory exists, on any National Forest in Montana. There exists no factual basis for forest management decisions at present,” he stated. “Inventories and planning actions cost tens of thousands of dollars to provide healthy, sustainable resources. Mega wildfires cost tens of millions of dollars of subsidy from eastern states’ taxpayers to pay for our mismanagement in the West. This is not sustainable. It is past time to shift back to healthy forest management practices. Our forests are economically self-sustaining, if managed professionally.”