Policy changes may be adding up to create a new forest order

By Jim Mann
The Daily Inter Lake


Dead trees burned in this summer's wildfire season stand on a ridge near the Hungry Horse Reservoir on the Flathead National Forest last week. Forest Service officials, environmentalists and the timber industry are wrestling with forest policies which will have huge effects in northwest Montana.
Robin Loznak/ Daily Inter Lake

Montana - Environmental groups are lashing out, predicting doom for federal forests.

Timber industry groups are hopeful, expecting a long-awaited turnaround in forest management policies.

Forest Service officials are uncertain what the outcome will be.

But it's clear that over the past year, a series of significant policy changes have been developing, most of them driven by Republicans who control the White House and Congress.

Individually, the policy moves won't lead to substantial changes, said Julia Altemus of the Montana Logging Association, but combined they will make a difference in forest management.

"All these things are part of a puzzle," Altemus said. "When you add all the pieces of the puzzle together, they favor industry."

A series of "categorical exclusions" that basically exempt specific types of mostly small projects from detailed environmental reviews have already been approved by the Bush Administration.

The Healthy Forest Restoration Act intended to clear the way for fuels reduction projects has cleared the House and has been heavily amended in the Senate, where it has been stalled this week.

Most recently, considerable attention has been directed toward a legislative rider, designed by Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., as a way to expedite timber salvage work on the Flathead and Kootenai national forests.

Combined, the new policies should help what's left of the timber industry in Montana, said Ellen Engstedt, executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association.

"We're basically trying to save the infrastructure in Montana that we still have," Engstedt said. "We have half as many sawmills as we did in 1990. We're sort of at a crossroads for keeping our infrastructure in place ... Frankly, I don't know what the Forest Service would do without our infrastructure."

Lincoln County was once known as the timber basket of Montana, with multiple mills in operation. Now it has one independent mill, operating well below its full capacity, and another small Plum Creek Timber Co. mill that relies heavily on timber from Plum Creek's vast land holdings.

Without those mills, Forest Service officials acknowledge their ability to manage the Kootenai National Forest would be handicapped.

Most of the forest's timber program was put on ice earlier this year by a court ruling that stopped several timber sales, with U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy finding the Kootenai had failed to produce an inventory of old-growth on the forest prior to approving the sales.

That ruling led directly to the legislation that Burns attached to the Senate Interior Appropriations bill, drawing a furious response from at least 11 environmental groups.

In a recent newspaper ad, the groups labeled the Burns legislation as "the Lawless Logging Rider." They accuse the senator of sneaking the legislation into the appropriations bill "without a debate." They claim it will "increase water pollution on the Flathead National Forest, sidestepping the Clean Water Act," and will "result in logging of thousands of acres of majestic old growth forests on the Kootenai National Forest, including logging and road building in threatened grizzly bear habitat."

J.P. Donovan, spokesman for Burns, dismisses those claims as sensational, misleading rhetoric.

The rider surely will be debated as it continues through congressional review, he said.

The rider, by itself, does not direct logging in any old growth forests, nor does it order logging and road building in grizzly bear habitat, Donovan said.

"Their assertions are just amazing," he said. "It's akin to statements that certain politicians are against children, or against senior citizens. They use inciting language and rhetoric to counter something they can't argue with fact."

The Burns rider, formally called "The Flathead and Kootenai National Forest Act of 2003," does give the Forest Service the ability to develop a single proposed action for post-fire salvage logging projects on the Flathead Forest. The National Environmental Policy Act normally requires several "action alternatives" for salvage projects.

But that does not open the door to clearcutting "old-growth" forests. Flathead Forest officials say they still must follow forest plan provisions pertaining to old growth.

Engstedt and Altemus say charges that the timber industry aims to pillage old growth are outright false, largely because the remaining mills in Montana are no longer equipped to process big trees that are normally defined as old growth.

The Burns rider also requires up-front public collaboration in developing a single-action alternative. It orders the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service to expedite "consultation," a process in which potential impacts to threatened and endangered species are measured.

It prohibits appeals, except from people or groups that were involved in the development of the single-action alternative.

Appellants, Donovan said, "just have to be part of the complete process, not a last-minute protest."

Engstedt and Altemus contend the modus operandi of many environmental groups involves last-minute, ambush appeals followed by lawsuits to stop forest management projects. Appeals and legal procedures only need to delay time-sensitive fire salvage projects long enough, and the timber deteriorates to a point where it loses all marketable value.

"What these groups do is they wait in the weeds until the Forest Service goes through its huge gyrations to make its projects bullet-proof in court," Engstedt said. "Then they find several things in the Forest Service proposal that they can make broad appeals against."

Steve Kelly, a former Montana congressional candidate who has long been active with Friends of the Wild Swan, sees the Burns rider as a violation of constitutional due process guarantees because it interferes with the public's right to judicial relief.

While the rider still must make its way through Congress, Kelly and other environmentalists consider its inclusion in an appropriations bill to be sneaky.

"These midnight riders don't instill confidence in the American system of government," Kelly said. "It has the opposite effect. It reinforces the notion that special interests run the show."

A rider that applies to two national forests, attached to a huge spending bill, is "petty," Kelly said. "This isn't what Congress should be doing."

This week, 10 Republican members of Congress from Midwestern and Eastern states wrote a letter urging Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., to oppose the Burns rider from his position as chairman of House Appropriations Committee.

Because the future of the rider is unclear, Flathead Forest officials aren't banking on it as they proceed in planning for timber salvage sales that could yield up to 40 million board feet from roughly 90,000 acres of forest land burned by fires over the summer.

Steve Brady, resource officer on the Flathead Forest, said he thinks the rider could indeed expedite salvage projects that forest officials want to plan for quickly.

The single-action alternative provision, for instance, "would probably reduce our costs" in planning and could eliminated time dedicated to lengthy, detailed development of other alternatives, he said.

"If managed properly, it could save us time and allow us to get those salvage sales out more quickly," he said.

The rider also specifies that salvage projects cannot be stopped if the Forest Service has yet to develop water quality protection plans that are required under the Clean Water Act.

Burns' staff supports a position held by the timber industry that Montana state law, passed to implement Clean Water Act requirements, does not allow so-called "Total Maximum Daily Load" plans to be the reason for holding up timber management projects, as long as the projects are carried out under state standards called "Best Management Practices."

"This is in complete compliance with the Clean Water Act and Montana state law," Donovan said.

The issue has actually been the focus of a lawsuit involving the Lolo National Forest that could soon be decided by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

According to Brady, Clean Water Act provisions of the rider could turn out to irrelevant when it comes to timber salvage in burned areas of the Flathead's North Fork Valley. That's because Flathead staffers expect to complete a TMDL plan for that area by this fall or winter.

Brady said forest officials are optimistic that other recent policy changes will make it easier to plan for and proceed with timber management projects on the Flathead.

A series of "categorical exclusions" for relatively small timber salvage, fuel reduction, and green timber sales will exempt the forest from cumbersome environmental analysis normally required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Some salvage projects may be planned under new categorical exclusion rules, he said, and a fuels reduction project is being planned for Flathead Forest lands near residential areas in the lower North Fork Valley.

If the Healthy Forest Restoration Act eventually clears the Senate, he said, Flathead Forest lands could qualify and receive funding for larger fuel reduction projects, Brady said.

"We have a lot of need in the valley," he said. "We have a lot of homes built into the timber, and we'd like to get more active in physically managing that and I think it will help in that manner."


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