Senators turn up heat on fire policy

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Trees torch during a controlled burn on the West Fork fire Sunday evening. (John Blodgett/The Western News)

Thousands of miles from the wildfires torching the West, U.S. Senators Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., both spent Wednesday calling for policy changes to prepare for future blazes.

Daines did so by holding an evening tele-town hall, which Montanans could phone into or watch online.

“Either we are gonna manage our forests in Montana, or our forests are gonna manage us,” he said in his opening remarks, repeating a line he’s used heavily in recent weeks. “This feels like the summer where our forests are managing us. Enough is enough.”

He and constituents proceeded to discuss a series of possible changes to U.S. forest management and wildfire response practices.

The first caller, identified as Sandra from Billings, said that “we need a certain amount of logging” to reduce the fuel load and make fires less severe.

Daines concurred, holding up two tree cross-sections, each 2 inches wide. One, he said, came from a tree in a “managed forest” with some logging. It had taken 15 years for it to reach that diameter. The other, he said, came from an “unmanaged forest” without logging, and had taken 40 years to reach the same size.

In replying to Sandra, and throughout the 48-minute talk, Daines blamed “radical environmentalists” for blocking forest thinning efforts.

He told the third caller, Richard from Lewistown, that one case, “Cottonwood Environmental Law Center v. U.S. Forest Service,” had been especially harmful.

In that 2016 case, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Forest Service had failed to re-enter consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Services after the latter agency expanded a threatened Canadian Lynx habitat to include several forest management projects. The ruling had the effect of stopping those projects.

Daines has introduced a bill that would permit the Forest Service’s actions in cases like that, and said that his goal was to have it passed by the end of the year.

Other policies he discussed included: streamlining the logging permitting process; ending the practice of “fire borrowing,” in which the Forest Service must borrow funds from fire-prevention programs to pay for firefighting; and rebuilding Glacier National Park’s historic Sperry Chalet, which burned to the ground Aug. 31.

“That was a real gut punch for many of us who love Glacier Park,” he said.

While most of the callers focused on forest management and fire response, one, Jessica from Bozeman, pointed out that wildfires have been exacerbated by the warmer, dryer weather of recent years, and asked, “when will climate change and its effects enter the debate?”

“We won’t have a debate tonight on climate change,” Daines replied, but added that thinning forests could reduce carbon emissions from wildfires, and called on Montanans to “stay focused on science and facts.”

Earlier that day, Sen. Tester had laid out his own proposals in a speech on the Senate floor. Like Daines, he called for an end to “fire borrowing,” saying that “the Forest Service is forced to rob Peter to pay Paul,” with “Peter” being fire-prevention programs.

But Tester broke with Daines in his discussion of climate change, saying that “After a long summer of record-breaking hurricanes and wildfires, it is finally time for the Senate to have an honest debate about climate change.”

The three other actions he proposed were full reimbursement to the Forest Service for this season’s firefighting expenses, giving family owned businesses and farms access to recovery resources from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Small Business Administration, and fast-tracking legislation to give local governments recovery resources.

“We need to work together,” Tester said, “to not only help those in desperate need, but also move forward with long-term solutions, solutions that will help us.”

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 406-754-4407.

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