Tester fights to increase outdoor recreation opportunities for Montanans

Senator urges Forest Service Chief to prioritize trail maintenance

(U.S. Senate)-Senator Jon Tester today continued his efforts to increase recreation opportunities for Montanans wanting to access the great outdoors.

During a Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Tester questioned U.S Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell on why his agency is failing to prioritize trail maintenance in Montana. This comes on the heels of news reports that state the Custer Gallatin National Forest’s trail budget is down nine percent.

“If we are going to continue to grow our outdoor economy, those trails are pretty damn important,” Tester said to Tidwell.

While Tester noted that the Forest Service has discretion about how to spend the dollars that Congress appropriates, he also highlighted the rapidly increasing costs of wildfire suppression, which is reducing the Forest Service’s ability to fund other priorities, like trail maintenance.

“The increased cost of fighting wildfires is having a major impact to outdoor enthusiasts in Montana,” Tester said. “If this trend continues it will have permanent consequences to Montana’s outdoor economy, and our western way of life.”

Tester is sponsoring the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act to pay for catastrophic wildfires through separate emergency funding, allowing the Forest Service to devote more resources to maintain trails, approve timber sales, and increase access to public lands. Public lands and outdoor recreation are the base of Montana’s $6 billion outdoor economy that supports more than 64,000 jobs.

“Changing the way we pay to fight catastrophic wildfires will allow the Forest Service to make investments that increase folks’ opportunity to hunt, hike, and fish,” Tester added.

In 1995, 16 percent of the Forest Service’s budget was used to suppress wildfires. Today wildfire suppression costs consume 52 percent of the Forest Service’s budget, and it is expected to increase to 67 percent by 2025.

Tidwell told Tester that the increased cost of wildfire suppression will reduce non-fire programs, such as forest management and recreation, funding by more than $300 million annually within the next 10 years-and these reductions are already forcing a 30 percent cut to trail funding in Montana over the next three years.

Tester also pushed his colleagues on the committee to fully fund and permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is a key tool the Forest Service uses to restore access and protect habitat.