Fuel and fire: A case for federal forest management and reforms

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For most Montanans, this is not just another fire season. The 2017 season started early and is predicted to continue until a season-ending event such as rain or snow by November. Unfortunately for the thousands of people evacuated from their homes, and the tens of thousands that breath unhealthy air every day, we are in it for the long-haul.

Montanans know that summer brings wildfire, however, over the past 15 years fire season starts earlier, ends later, and burns hotter. According to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center, over 5 million acres have been consumed by fire in Montana from 2002 to 2016. Of that total, 3.6 million acres were under federal management, including 1.8 million acres on National Forest System (NSF) lands.

Only five of the past 15 years have over 150,000 acres burned. Those five proved to be very devastating fire years. Sadly, over 1.16 million acres have burned in Montana so far in 2017. With 139 fires over 100 acres, and full suppression efforts on 46 large fires — at a cost to the tax payer of $346 million — we are well on our way to a record year!

Montana timberlands occupy over 22.5 million acres. Sixty-two percent of the timber base is under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service. According to Forest Inventory Analysis data, of the 567 million cubic feet of annual wood fiber growth on NSF lands in Montana, 510 million cubic feet – or an astonishing 89.9 percent – suffers annual mortality as a direct result of insect and disease infestations. Approximately 4.5 percent of the green growth and five percent of mortality are harvested each year. Over the past 10 years, an average of 84mmbf of sawlogs were harvested annually on NFS lands in Montana. A fraction of the annual growth and mortality.

Of the three conditions that drive wildfire — fuel, topography and weather — the only condition we have any ability to modify is the fuel, and we are getting further and further behind every year. With 4.9 million acres identified in Montana as priority landscapes, in critical need of fuel reduction — at the present rate of management — it will take us centuries to restore our forests back to a range of natural variability.

Even though Montana has lost 30 mills in the past 30 years, we are fortunate to have eight large sawmills still in operation, three engineered manufacturing facilities, two chipping operations and many small-scale and secondary wood manufacturers. Even though we sit in an over-stocked wood basket with ability to take on more raw fiber, the timber harvest from our federal partners is not meeting the needs of the forest nor the industry.

Congress must act or the fires of 2017 will just be a precursor to events to come. Setting economic growth in rural America as a high priority would double the level of management, including acres treated and timber harvested. This would stabilize timber-dependent communities while reducing wildland fire risk, protect air and water quality and keep millions of tons of stored carbon from going up in smoke. To get there, we must provide the Forest Service with a suite of necessary management tools, expand cross-boundary collaboration and pass a budget that increases the pace and scale of forest restoration.

With over 50 percent of the Forest Service budget going towards fire suppression annually, steps must be taken to stem the erosion. Additionally, funds should be dedicated to the agency above the capped average for mechanical hazardous fuel reduction efforts.

Judicial reforms are needed as well. There are over 237mmbf of federal timber tied up in litigation in Montana (29 timber sales) that are impacting over 26,000 acres with an additional 56mmbf (11 sales) waiting in the wing. As a perspective, 293mmbf is equivalent to 58,600 loads of logs and hundreds of jobs.

Without the loggers, the log haulers and mill manufacturers, the condition of private, state and federal forests will only worsen. If we are ever going to get ahead of the curve and manage our precious resources, congress must act. Now is the time to press for reforms, before we lose any more habitat, homes, lives and an entire industry.

Julia Altemus is executive director of Montana Wood Products Association.

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