Mineral Co. commissioners issue position on forest health

| May 20, 2020 4:38 PM

Montana’s elected officials will be expected to focus on economic recovery as soon as COVID-19 loosens its grip on the state.

Even prior to this global pandemic there was an urgent need to restore family-wage jobs in Montana’s forest sector while reducing the risks of catastrophic wildfires on overstocked federal forests.

This need is even more urgent as our forest industry has been declared an “essential workforce” so that it can continue to meet the needs of our society.

Both economic recovery and forest health can be promoted by fixing the so-called “Cottonwood” court decision that is keeping important collaborative forest management work from being done. Fortunately, there’s a solution available that even the Obama and Trump administrations have supported.

A small handful of litigant groups are continuing to use the Cottonwood decision to paralyze our federal land management system.

Specifically, these lawsuits try to force the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to reinitiate wildlife consultations under the Endangered Species Act for previously adopted forest plans, whenever new critical habitat is designated, a new species is listed, or when “new information” becomes available about a species.

Such reconsultations do not provide any conservation benefit to vulnerable species, since these federal agencies are already required to conduct wildlife consultations when individual forest projects are developed.

Because forest plans can be decades-old and hard to amend, these lawsuits only serve to throw sand into the gears of our land management system because it requires agencies to spend more of their limited time and resources on planning documents with no actual impacts on species.

In 2016 the Obama Administration recognized how this single court decision can be so disruptive to the restoration work that is required on our national forests, especially as forest collaboratives succeeded in bringing diverse interests together to tackle problems

on our forests.

Yet the U.S. Supreme Court declined the Obama Administration’s request to hear the case, so Cottonwood continues to set a harmful precedent on forest litigation.

These lawsuits translate into lost opportunities for proactive, science-based forest management that benefit both our economy and environment. Most recently Cottonwood-based lawsuits tied up enough timber to shut down a sawmill in Townsend, resulting in 70 workers being laid off.

This is only the beginning, as these groups have filed more notices of intent to sue. Over 140 forest health projects and timber sales are threatened, putting more rural jobs and forest infrastructure at risk.

Both of Montana’s U.S. Senators - Steve Daines and Jon Tester - have recognized the threat of the Cottonwood decision to the state’s economy and national forests. They worked together to pass a partial fix in the 2018 federal Omnibus bill. However, recent lawsuits have focused on parts of the Cottonwood decision that weren’t fixed in 2018, and are now threatening a wide spectrum of forest management projects.

If left unchecked, Cottonwood-driven forest litigation will continue to stymie progress that has been made to increase the pace and scale of forest management across Montana. It will threaten the “Shared Stewardship” model that has been adopted by the federal government and the State of Montana and championed through Gov. Steve Bullock’s Forest in Focus 2.0 initiative.

Despite the bipartisan support of Senators Tester and Daines, partisan politics in Washington, D.C. threaten efforts to secure a permanent fix to the Cottonwood decision.

As economic recovery becomes a top priority, and as the wildfire season begins in earnest this summer, it would be a mistake to allow election-year politics to stand in the way of a solution that benefits Montana workers and health of our national forests.

We should encourage our leaders – Democrat and Republican - to work together and provide relief from this forest gridlock.

Board of County Commissioners, Mineral County, Montana

Roman Zylawy, Chairman

Laurie Johnston, Commissioner

Duane Simons, Commissioner