Stalemates must end over Montana forests

The Missoulian

by Robert Johnson

In a recent guest opinion (Missoulian, Nov. 9), Paul Edwards calls Sen. Jon Tester’s bill “a federal welfare program for the forest products industry” in the state of Montana. Edwards is far from right. Tester’s bill is not an act to save a few mills but is a necessary step toward better forest management.

These forests are important to all of us. There is logging and recreation as well as 600,000 acres of wilderness set aside for public use. These lands and forests belong to the citizens of the United States. The National Forest Management Act of 1977 called for the U.S. Forest Service to manage all public forested lands while mandating that social, economical and recreational uses would not be affected. Montana has more than 20.6 million acres of forested lands with 12.9 million acres under U.S. Forest Service management. Tester and the USFS realize one cannot manage the forest without a forest products industry. This industry has a wide base in Montana affecting everything from our environment to our economy.

There are over 9,000 jobs directly related to the timber industry and approximately

25 percent of the state’s economy is based on forest products. This is not a small industry that can be easily replaced. Montana has gone from the fourth-highest income per capita to 49th during the last 40 years as the industry has been reduced. Now the state only has 15 major forest products manufacturers left. If these businesses were gone, how would one manage our forests? States like New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah have no forest products industry left and their forests are being decimated by overgrowth and disease.

Over the past 30 years we have seen less logging and forest management outside of state and private efforts. We have seen forest firefighting policy go from controlling fires to protecting homes and stopping natural fire management. This has led to very high-density forests. The current mountain pine beetle infestation has become an epidemic, affecting over 3 million acres and continuing to grow exponentially.
The reality here is that our forests are staged to have a fire season much like the one of 1910; possibly worse.
The combination of beetle kill, high-density growth and few active management projects has lead to a scenario where the fires will be so hot they would sterilize the ground, allowing nothing to grow for years. Recognizing the possible impact carbon can have on climate change, one can easily see how these fires could make matters worse. Trees could be less of a carbon sink, absorbing carbons from the air. Severe fires will also add large amounts of particulate into our atmosphere. If we want a cleaner environment, then good forest management is essential.

Tester’s biggest minefield is 45 years of federal legislation. The National Forest Mangement Act was the start of federal control. Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, then added the Columbia River Basin Rulings, the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Protection Act, Clinton’s Roadless Initiative, and the Freedom of Justice Act.
We have now taken the management of the forests from the USFS to the court room. We now expect federal judges not only to be experts in the law, but also the natural sciences. This burden of law and science has cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Even though forests are public lands, the court decides what uses are allowed.

Tester has gone where no one has been willing to tread since Pat Williams in the 1970s in trying to find common ground between forest uses and wilderness. His bill has only begun its journey and it will be both loved and hated. I hope, when the journey is over, there is a consensus satisfying all concerned. I applaud Jon Tester for his leadership and his Montana values.

The stalemates must end in order to serve the best interests of the public. The courts cannot solve all the issues. We Montanans work, live and play here. Jon Tester needs to know what you believe is best for our state. Contact Tester and tell him what you think. I thank Tester for all of his efforts.

Robert Johnson is a labor leader and president-elect for the United Steel Workers Local 885. He is also a committee member of WorkSafeMT and a current member of Leadership Montana.