Daily Inter Lake: $19.3M pegged for wildfire mitigation on Kootenai Forest

by Matt Baldwin

A swath of Northwest Montana pegged for forestry work aimed at reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire is among a handful of similar projects across the West selected for an initial surge of federal dollars.

The Kootenai Complex Project targets areas surrounding Libby, Troy, Eureka, Stryker, Fortine and Trego in Lincoln County. Forestry work on 7,200 acres – including thinning, prescribed burns and planting – is expected to be completed over the next few years, with an initial 900 acres being treated by the end of 2022.

The project is one of 10 identified under the federal Initial Landscape Investments plan to address the West’s worsening wildfire crisis. Other projects will take place in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

The first round of funding for the forestry work was made available through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. About $19 million is earmarked for the Kootenai project, with $3 million set to be dispersed this year.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, on Friday touted the funding infusion from the bipartisan legislation he helped pass into law last year.

“Wildfires pose a serious risk to Montana’s forests and the rural communities that surround them, and we’ve got to do everything we can to combat and mitigate wildfire damage across the state – particularly as our fire seasons have grown longer and more dangerous,” Tester said. “That’s why I worked to ensure the bipartisan infrastructure law gives the Forest Service the tools they need to protect our land and communities, and why I’ll hold them accountable to use it effectively as quickly as possible. Our communities whose homes and drinking water are at risk can’t afford to wait.”

Nearly 1 million Montana acres burned in wildfires in 2021, the highest total since the state’s record-setting 2017 season. The state spent nearly $50 million on fire suppression efforts last year.

IN selectING the Initial Landscape Investment projects, the Forest Service said that along with wildfire risk it considered collaborative efforts already in place “and opportunities to invest in underserved and socially disadvantaged communities.”

The Kootenai Forest already has a memorandum of understanding with Lincoln County and the state to allow this type of forestry work, while a Good Neighbor Authority agreement is in place to expedite the work, the report states. Further, forest work recommended on private land will follow the Lincoln County Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

Another benefit will come with a supply of logs for the region’s wood products industry, “which will further contribute to employment opportunities in this underserved community,” the report states.

The Kootenai Complex is the smallest of the 10 Initial Landscape Investment projects.

The largest is in southwest Arizona, which will receive $160 million in funding with forestry work on 300,000 acres. A project on the Colorado Front Range is pegged for $170 million in funding, while in central Washington another $102 million will go toward reducing wildfire risk on 124,000 acres.