Sen. Tester hosts wildfire prevention roundtable in Missoula

by MTN News, Donal Lakatua

MISSOULA – With the possibility of another hot and dry summer around the corner, it’s become an important discussion among lawmakers, officials and scientists talked about how to best to manage fires, both logistically and economically.

Sen. Jon Tester was in Missoula on Saturday to discuss how to move forward, without burning the bank.

2017 was the most expensive wildfire season ever for Montana and the damage done to both living environments and budgets has left both Washington and state government looking for a solution.

Following a staggering $2.4 billion forest fighting effort consuming more than half of the U.S. Forest Service budget, Sen. Tester drafted the Fire Grants Reauthorization Act which would allow the government to provide grants to local and rural fire departments.

Sen. Tester met with representatives from the lumber industry, forest networking coordinators, a forestry professor and directors of state resource management and forest land.

They spoke about the future of fighting wildfires proactively and focusing on what has been called “fire borrowing” – a budgetary practice that occurs when federal agencies divert funds from forest health and fire prevention programs to fight wildfires.

The practice means that during a fire season, the US Forest Service doesn’t have the infrastructure to maintain trails, campgrounds or work on any projects. through grants and collaboration with industry, they hope to change that.

“They would just stop all of the work. Projects that could otherwise proceed just stopped,” Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director John Tubbs said.

“If we have an industry that’s working in the woods that’s not all taxpayer dollars, we can, in fact, end up creating an economy that can help contribute to forest restoration,” Sen. Tester said.

A charter project conducted by the DNRC showed that when collaborating with the lumber industry they were able to save nearly a million dollars on restoration projects.

“It could have been a million dollar restoration project. It was solely funded through taxpayer money. What it turned out to be is a $1.1 million restoration projects with upwards of 900,000 paid for by the lumber industry because they purchased the logs,” Tubbs said.

The law also overturned the cottonwood decision, a ninth circuit ruling that stonewalled important timber projects.

“This will bring new enthusiasm to those partnerships. That they’re going to get something done, that they’re not just going to sit around a table and talk, but they’ll actually get practices on the ground,” Tubbs said.