Tester hears improvement suggestions for Farm Bill

by Rob Chaney

The current congressional farm bill doesn’t expire until September 2018, but Montanans have already compiled a lengthy wish list for the next one.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, wrapped up a three-day listening tour in Missoula on Friday gathering comments on what works and doesn’t in the sprawling legislation. In addition to lots of farming matters, the 2014 Farm Bill also launched a number of forest management changes that affect the state’s timber industry. The first panel of the Missoula session concentrated on those issues.

“That was the first time the Forest Service was provided tools in that manner,” Loren Rose of Pyramid Mountain Lumber said of expanded categorical exclusions and collaborative planning incentives in the 2014 bill. “Region 1 has worked really hard to implement those provisions, but the agency culture hasn’t fully embraced the collaboratives yet.”

Categorical exclusions allow Forest Service planners to skip extensive analysis of timber projects that involve routine or uncontroversial activity. Projects that have participation by collaborative groups of stakeholders also get access to special funding or administrative streamlining.

Industry representatives have asked Tester and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, to make the pilot versions of those measures permanent or more extensive, and with better funding. Rose pointed out some more complicated problems, such as conflicting federal rules that prohibit road reconstruction in large-landscape timber projects.

Several speakers noted that collaborative planning efforts suffer from both long-time commitments and little assurance that the Forest Service will honor the results. But they praised the practice as a way of getting community acceptance of timber management that deserved protection from lawsuits launched by stakeholders who refused to participate.

The session did not have a panel for recreation or non-commercial use of public land – an omission that frustrated several wilderness advocates in the room. Jeff Juel of the WildWest Institute told Tester during the 10-minute open comment period he thought collaboratives lacked accountability to the national public beyond a given project’s local stakeholders. He also challenged the idea of using timber harvest to pay for restoration work.

“Expecting the forest to give up its trees for watershed protection is like asking an anemia patient to sell blood to pay medical bills,” Juel said. “It’s not in the public interest.”

Members of the Montana farming and ranching community did get time to air their thoughts. They observed that many programs critical to Montana agricultural stability had been cut or curtailed in recent years, such as access to the Conservation Reserve Program that allows farmers to take agricultural land out of production for ecological reasons without hurting their business. Blackfoot rancher Jim Stone added that improvements needed to be made to the way the federal government managed invasive weed control programs.

Montana State Forester Bob Harrington held hope that the next Farm Bill would repeat the successes of the 2014 version. Provisions like the Good Neighbor Authority that allow state agencies to provide some management of nearby federal lands have already triggered $2 million in Montana legislative investment.

“We had no idea that the forestry titles (in the bill) would be so robust,” Harrington said. “This is one of the last examples of something positive coming out of Congress. This state has really leaned into taking advantage of the Good Neighbor Authority more than any other state in the country.”