Congress needs to protect our rural timber communities

The following opinion by Bryan Lorengo originally appeared in the Montana Standard

Despite growing momentum for more active management on Montana’s national forests, litigation from a small number of fringe groups continues to hurt rural communities and the ability of federal agencies to manage public lands. The indefinite suspension of Townsend’s sawmill is just the latest example why Congress needs to address anti-forestry obstruction, which is costing family wage jobs and blocking collaborative efforts to improve forest health and reduce wildfire risks.

According to an economic study by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, eight to 10 jobs in the state’s forest sector are associated with each million board feet harvested. U.S. Forest Service Region 1 reports litigation is currently tying up forest management projects that would provide roughly 175 million board feet to support rural economies. Using BBER’s economic multiplier, this means that as many as 1,750 Montana jobs have been lost or harmed as litigant groups sue the Forest Service to block projects that provide both economic and conservation benefits to local communities.

Townsend’s sawmill is surrounded by national forest lands. Their operations depend on a predictable supply of timber to stay in business and keep their workers employed. Tough decisions are required when 80 percent of the mill’s wood supply is held up by lawsuits. Most often, the litigation is not focused on whether the timber harvesting is bad for the environment, but whether federal agencies completed the right paperwork or bureaucratic consultations.

For example, leveraging the so-called “Cottonwood” decision, fringe groups are asking judges to halt forest projects until the Forest Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have consulted on the overarching forest plan, even when the agencies and their respective scientists had already determined a particular timber harvest project wouldn’t adversely affect a species such as grizzlies or lynx. This tactic drains agency budgets and personnel time, and can delay forest projects for years. Sawmills simply can’t operate with this kind of uncertainty, and unfortunately both employers and employees pay the price.

When obstruction and litigation forces a facility to close, it’s not just the mill workers who lose their jobs. It negatively impacts the small family-owned logging contractors and a variety of local small businesses that depend on the sustainable harvesting, transportation and manufacturing of wood products. Litigation also reduces timber revenues to counties that depend on the funding for road maintenance and other public services, not to mention the loss of tax revenue from lost economic activity.

Our forests also suffer when litigation stops efforts to restore overstocked, insect and disease-impacted landscapes back to health. The National Insect and Disease Forest risk assessment finds that Montana ranks third nationally for the percentage of forestlands at risk. Twenty-one percent of the state’s 36 million acres could be lost to insects and disease by 2027, with federally-owned forests being in the greatest danger. As tree removal has dropped by 60 percent between 1991 and 2016, net growth of Montana’s forests has decreased by 91 percent while tree mortality has increased an alarming 263 percent during this time period.

When a few fringe groups sue to stop forest projects, one has to wonder what they’re really trying to accomplish when our forests are dying and wildlife habitat is being lost to fire. Public lands managers and their scientists understand that action is needed to reverse the trend. To their credit, Forest Service Region 1 and its national forests in Montana are utilizing innovative new policy tools to increase acres-treated and timber volume through modern and science-based forestry. Yet obstruction and litigation continue to stymie these efforts to increase the pace and scale of critically needed forest management activities.

To protect our rural communities and forests, Montana’s congressional delegation needs to pass meaningful solutions, and they should act soon before more jobs are lost, and more forests are lost to wildfire, insects and disease.

Congress needs to protect our rural timber communities