Tester bill an opportunity for the U.S. Forest Service

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle

by Mark Petroni

After a lifetime in Montana and a career in the Forest Service, I welcome Sen. Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act as a way of making our national forests and communities healthier.

Born in Butte two years before the opening of the Berkely Pit, I grew up in the foothills of the Highland Mountains. Hiking and hunting in those forests shaped my life. In 2008 I retired from the U.S. Forest Service after 33 years — 25 years on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and 19 as the District Ranger of the Madison Ranger District headquartered in Ennis.

I worked with a talented crew of publicminded foresters, biologists and engineers to make wise use of that national forest. But the job carried frustrations as well.

Imagine working hard for several years on a project you believe will provide raw material for local mills, help improve forest health, and improve conditions for fish and wildlife. Then, after all that work, the project is lost in litigation.  

My colleagues and I grappled with this challenge daily. It really doesn’t matter whether the project would rehabilitate aspen stands, reduce fuel near homes and communities, or salvage bug-killed trees. If the project removed trees it was destined for appeal and litigation.

So I have closely followed the debate of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. After attending Sen. Tester’s meeting in Dillon, viewing the Senate Committee for Natural Resources hearing and attended Congressman Rehberg’s listening session in Ennis, I have drawn the following conclusions:

The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act will help break gridlock by bringing people with diverse interest together. The supporters, Montana Wilderness Association, Trout Unlimited, and others have pledged support for the forest management initiative in the Act. In addition, the advisory committee required in the act would allow local communities to be more directly involved in forest management. The Madison Ranger District prevailed in Federal District Court with every project that included supportive local interveners. When individuals, groups and the county Commissioners signed on as interveners on behalf of the Forest Service, and showed up in court with their lawyers,   the Federal District Court Judge could not help but notice.

The act’s requirements for active management will challenge the Forest Service, but the outcome is sustainable and beneficial on the land. The bill requires the agency to analyze a large watershed each year and mechanically treated 7,000 acres each year for 10 years with 70,000 acres treated in total. The term “mechanical treatment” includes thinning Douglas fir stands; removing dead trees; restoring aspen, and willows by removing competing conifers; and reducing fuel and the risk of wildfire near homes and communities.

Some critics suggest that mechanical treatment of 7,000 acres per year may not be sustainable, but my experience – and the agency’s own plan — tells me otherwise. The Beaverhead- Deerlodge Forest Plan describes several objectives for managing vegetation in the next 10 to 15 years. The plan’s objectives for Douglas fir, lodgepole pine and aspen calls for management on 161,000 acres. If mechanical treatment of 7,000 acres per year were used to accomplish these objectives, it would take 23 years to achieve the vegetation diversity proposed in the plan. The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act should not be viewed as contrary to the Beaverhead Forest Plan but rather as a   logical step to implement the plan.

The Act will help provide jobs while restoring southwest Montana’s watersheds and providing for livestock grazing in designated wilderness areas where it already exists.

The Act resolves the legal limbo of Wilderness Study Areas by clarifying where motorized use is allowed.

Thank you Sen. Tester for sponsoring a workable solution to southwest Montana’s forest health crisis and helping resolve decades of debate over wilderness designation.

Mark Petroni retired from the Forest Service in 2008. He lives in West Yellowstone.