Tester Secures Major Public Land Wins for Montana

Senator’s Additions Will Fix Wildfire Funding, Reverse the Cottonwood Decision & Reauthorize Secure Rural Schools

(U.S. Senate) -U.S. Senator Jon Tester today announced several wins he secured for Montana’s public lands in Congress’ latest funding bill, including certainty for the Secure Rural Schools initiative, a reversal of the Ninth Circuit’s Cottonwood decision, and a long-term wildfire funding fix that will finally treat wildfires like other natural disasters.

“This bill will change the way we pay to fight wildfires,”
Tester said. “For years, the Forest Service has seen its budget ravaged by growing wildfire costs, draining the resources they need to manage our forests. This ‘death spiral’ has the Forest Service spending more each year on fighting fires, and less money on managing the forests to reduce their severity, harvest timber, and maintain trails. But thanks to our hard work, the Forest Service will now be able to fund catastrophic wildfires the same way as other natural disasters. This is a major step forward and I know this critical wildfire funding fix will allow us to better manage our forests.”

Unlike other natural disasters, funding to fight wildfires doesn’t come from FEMA or other emergency response accounts, it comes straight out of the U.S. Forest Service budget. This might have worked 20 years ago, when firefighting only took up about 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service budget. But over the last 20 years wildfire have gotten progressively worse, burning more acres over longer periods. Today the Forest Service spends more than half of its budget fighting wildfires and the more it spends on wildfires, the less it has to spend on critical maintenance, mitigation, and restoration work.

That’s why Tester has been fighting to pass a long-term fix that funds wildfires like other natural disasters, and today’s budget bill does just that. This bill caps the amount the Forest Service must spend on fighting wildfires. If costs exceed that amount, the Forest Service and Interior will have access to the same kind of emergency funding used to respond to other natural disasters. This will give the Forest Service the certainty and resources it needs to actively manage forests, maintain roads and trails, and mitigate future fire risks. Tester is the only Senator from Montana who co-sponsored the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act.

“Our national forests are critical for providing wildlife habitat, delivering clean water to our rivers and bolstering our economy,” said Tom France, Regional Executive Director of the Northern Rockies, Prairies and Pacific Regional Center of the National Wildlife Federation. “Today’s agreement is an essential step toward reducing fire threats, improving the safety of Montana’s communities and giving the Forest Service the tools it needs to do its job to restore our forests. We appreciate that Senator Tester has worked on this issue with conservationists, the timber industry and many other Montanans for a long time, and we urge Congress to take the next step and pass this important agreement into law.”

In addition to a wildfire-funding fix, Tester secured three other critical land management provisions in the budget bill.

Secure Rural Schools (SRS)
One of Tester’s provisions will provide critical funding to Montana counties by reauthorizing Secure Rural Schools (SRS) funding for fiscal years 2018 and 2019. Congress passed SRS in 2000 to compensate forested counties with federal land for lost revenue due to declining timber production. However, when SRS expired in 2015, payments to Montana’s forested counties dropped from $18.1 million to about $2.4 million a year. Reauthorizing SRS will bring funding back up to 2015 levels, providing much-needed certainty to Montana counties so they can continue to pay for essential services like schools and roads.

“On behalf of struggling Montana counties facing inadequate infrastructure funding, a retraction of service delivery from our state partners at Department of Revenue, Job Service, Addictive and Mental Disorder Division of DPHHS, and Office of Public Assistance; from an overburdened property tax base that continues to vote themselves property tax increases for critical infrastructure like schools and jails; and from your local elected officials in county government that manage the day-to-day challenges when expectations and needs outweigh available resources, our sincere thanks to Senator Tester for leadership and support for SRS and PILT,” said Eric Bryson, MACo Deputy Director. 

The Cottonwood Decision
Tester also secured a provision to reverse the effects of the controversial Ninth Circuit Court Cottonwood decision, which has led to mountains of red tape for timber projects, trail maintenance, and conservation efforts. This provision codifies the position taken by the Obama administration that land management agencies are not required to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at a landscape level every time new critical habitat is designated or a new species is listed. Land management agencies already consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service on the effects of individual projects on the landscape. Tester’s provision restores certainty for Montana mills and folks who work in the woods.

Vegetation Management for Utilities
Tester also secured a provision to reduce barriers to routine vegetation management in utility corridors, guaranteeing that rural electric co-ops can maintain transmission infrastructure in heavily forested areas. Currently, small utility companies can be forced to wait for weeks to get approval from federal land managers to cut back trees and other vegetation to keep power lines clear and reduce the risk of wildfires. This bill gives utilities and land managers the tools to put concrete management plans in place, so hazardous trees are cut quickly, and every day vegetation management doesn’t stall. This bill also provides liability relief to small companies and utilities working to get management plans in place, helping local entities like Montana Electric Coops and Northwestern Energy.

“This legislation is very important to Montana’s consumer-owned electric cooperatives because it will help ensure reliability of the power they receive as well as help prevent wildfires and the resulting damages and enormous costs,” said Dave Wheelihan, CEO of Montana Electric Cooperatives’ Association. “It provides a greater degree of certainty to our ability to maintain our co-ops’ utility right of ways. The legislation is a win-win for both our electricity consumer-owners and for management of federal lands. A big thank you to Sen. Tester for his timely and critical support toward efforts to reach bipartisan agreement.”