Act will boost fire preparation

Montana Standard

by Gordy Sanders, Frank Maradeo and Jim Stone

The dog days of summer may be behind us, but the remnants of the recent fire season remind us once again that it pays dividends to be better prepared.

In Montana’s Blackfoot and Clearwater valleys, we’ve learned the hard way that it’s better to be ahead of the curve than behind it. That’s why we’ve been using smart investments from a federal program to reduce more and more hazardous fuel loads every year in our forests. Reducing fuel loads before a wildfire arrives provides a more effective buffer to adjacent homes and communities and makes conditions safer for our firefighters to work in.

Funding from the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program is also allowing us to improve elk habitat and clean up damaged streams. This work wouldn’t be taking place today if we hadn’t come together six years ago to propose a better vision for managing our forests. The principles of the vision are simple:

1) Forests surrounding our communities can be managed better for forest health, from thinning projects and prescribed burns to road removal and stream restoration.

2) Local people should be enriching their own economy by getting the jobs to do this work.

3) Complementary to more active management is a need for improved protections for our cherished backcountry wilderness because these places increase in value as our valleys fill up with more people.

These principles helped us craft a citizen-proposed plan we called the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship project. It was named for the two valleys where it was exhaustively hashed out at community meetings and at kitchen tables.

The original legislative proposal that defined our shared vision included $400,000/year for 10 years to do more forest work on the Seeley Lake Ranger District, the addition of 87,000 acres of recommended wilderness to the Bob Marshall and Mission Mountains wilderness areas, and cost-sharing for a co-generation facility at Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake.

This proposal eventually became a component of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act which is sitting in the halls of Congress right now. Although we are still waiting for Congress to pass our bill, we have continued to advance our vision through other avenues.

Some skeptics of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act complain that the only thing it guarantees is wilderness and that forest management won’t ever occur. The proof is already as plain to see as day. In the Lolo, Helena, and Flathead national forests, we are already helping to achieve our original restoration and management goals ten times over through the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program.

Since work started in 2010, the Collaborative Forest Restoration program has, among other things, reduced fuels on over 2,300 acres in the wildland-urban interface, restored forest health and resiliency on over 5,400 acres outside the WUI, produced over 8000 truckloads of commercial forest products, restored 19 miles of streams, treated weeds on almost 25,000 acres, and helped create or maintain 280 local jobs.

As we celebrate these enormous achievements, we are still waiting for the wilderness and the additional forest work that is promised once the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act becomes law. Passage of this bill will galvanize more investments and more resources to undertake responsible forest management and be better prepared for the next fire season.

Gordy Sanders works for Pyramid Mountain Lumber, Frank Maradeo is the chief of the Seeley Lake rural fire station and Jim Stone runs Rolling Stone Ranch.