by Daily Inter Lake, Patrick Reilly

As Montana’s historic summer wildfires smolder down, U.S. Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., are focused on future blazes.

The two spent Wednesday testifying in support of the Litigation Relief for Forest Management Projects Act. Numbered as Senate Bill 605, the Act aims to remove legal obstacles facing forest management projects ­- the logging and thinning operations that, they say, can remove fuel from fires’ path.

“We have heard from many Montanans that we need to empower the Forest Service to better manage our forests,” Tester told the Daily Inter Lake in an email. “This bill will allow them to responsibly cut trees to create jobs and help mitigate wildfires.”

In particular, the bill addresses the outcome of a 2015 lawsuit, Cottonwood Environmental Law Center v. U.S. Forest Service. In that case, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Forest Service had violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to re-enter consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when the latter agency expanded the threatened Canadian Lynx’s habitat to include 11 national forests.

According to the Forest Service, the ruling threatened 80 vegetation management projects in the lynx habitat. It also warned that “the implications of the Cottonwood case are broad…this interpretation provides an avenue for challenge of the programmatic consultation for all affected forest plans.”

Addressing the Committee on Environment and Public Works, the Montana’s senators linked the ruling to this summer’s devastation. Daines raised Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest’s Stonewall Vegetation Project, which was enjoined by a judge citing Cottonwood in June.

“About one month later, guess what happened?” Daines asked. “Fires broke out on some of the very acres that would have been treated under this project.”

“While I can’t say the project would have prevented the fire, the mere fact that wildfires occurred in areas that could not be treated due to the Cottonwood shows that we need to urgently pass my bipartisan legislation to statutorily reverse this decision.”

The bill states that the Secretary of Agriculture will not be required to enter Endangered Species Act-related consultation for land management plans that have already been adopted. It “simply clarifies that federal agencies do not need to do the extra layer of unnecessary consultation that is required by the Cottonwood decision,” Daines said.

“Removing this burden will allow federal agencies to have more time to complete preventive work on the ground, but will also create good-paying wood products jobs.”

John Meyer, founder and executive director of the Bozeman-based Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, disagrees.

In an e-mailed statement to the Daily Inter Lake, he described the bill as “the direct result of a lawsuit Cottonwood won for scientists and Canada lynx.”

He added that he would gladly testify before Congress on the bill, and suggested that “instead of advocating for more logging, perhaps Senators Daines and Tester should introduce a climate change relief bill.”

While Tester did call for the Senate to discuss climate change in a Sept. 13 speech, recent weeks have found Montana’s Congressional delegation most vocal in its calls for forest management.

“I’m not sure there’s a lot we can do about the weather,” Congressman Greg Gianforte told the Daily Inter Lake last week, “but we can do something about forest management, and that’s my focus.”

Reducing the fuel load could help tame future fires in many local forests, says Andrew Larson, associate professor of forest ecology at the University of Montana.

“In low-elevation forests” where ponderosa pines, douglas firs, and Western larch dominate, “fuel reduction treatments, and better yet, treatments that are aimed at restoring forest structure and composition of fuel loads…can be effective at changing potential fire behavior and effects,” he told the Daily Inter Lake in a phone interview.

“We can’t expect those sorts of treatments to prevent fires, though. That’s a very important distinction. I think our congressional delegation is becoming increasingly aware of that distinction.”

Gianforte acknowledged last week that “forest management won’t stop all fires.”

But he, Daines, and Tester remain optimistic that management projects can lessen their impacts, and now hope to remove the consultation requirements that have slowed them.

“This bill will go through the committee process and hopefully be attached to a larger package of forestry bills for consideration on the Senate floor,” Tester told the Daily Inter Lake. “With the support of both of Montana’s Senators I am hopeful we can get this across the finish line.”