Fringe activists are predictably making hay over statements made by Sen. Jon Tester regarding the impact of litigation and the “analysis paralysis” driving federal forest management today. They are making the most of their “gotcha” moment; one individual went so far as to liken the Democratic senator to Adolf Hitler. To be clear not every timber sale on Montana’s federal forests is tied up in litigation. But it sure seems that way to those who’ve witnessed the steep decline in federal timber harvests and lamented the economic decline of our rural communities.
Sen. Tester’s statement isn’t a whopper to those who understand the stranglehold that obstructionist groups currently enjoy over the U.S. Forest Service. According to media reports, three groups in Montana alone have been involved in over 200 lawsuits against federal agencies. During a recent five-year period they collected over $617,000 from American taxpayers for their efforts. Both the real and perceived threat of litigation have a significant impact on the Forest Service’s ability to manage forests for multiple uses and benefits.
Fringe groups commonly exploit minor, procedural federal regulations to contest minor issues in the process and bring entire projects to a halt. All of these costs come at the expense of the Forest Service’s budget, which takes money away from activities intended to keep our forests healthy and productive.
In fiscal year 2014, 220 million board feet (mbf) in Montana federal timber sales were either tied up in litigation or were subject to additional analysis due to earlier court decisions. When you add the 25 mbf that was withheld or not awarded because of threatened litigation, 80 percent of the region’s allowable sale quantity was directly affected by litigious activity. Fringe activists point to the Forest Service’s “meeting” their timber quota, but that’s only because a number of lawsuits that tied up old projects were resolved. The volume from these projects were finally offered up for sale because the groups lost their cases.
Litigation increases the time and cost of preparing and implementing forest projects as agency staff try to “bulletproof” procedural paperwork and compile records for court filings. The resulting shift to “hands-off” forest management has contributed to skyrocketing wildfire suppression costs that now dominate the Forest Service’s budget. In 1995, managing the national forest system represented 58 percent of the agency’s budget. Today this category represents just 31 percent, as more than half of the agency’s budget is dedicated to fighting wildfires. The absence of active management have made our forests more vulnerable to wildfire, insects, and disease. A degraded natural environmental makes many Montanans wonder what these fringe groups are actually fighting for.
Increased spending on wildfire suppression is just one of the hidden costs of agency analysis paralysis and lawsuits. Another hidden cost is the loss of income by families who once worked in the woods, in the mills and in other small businesses that benefited from the timber industry. Hands-off forest management contributes to higher unemployment and poverty rates in many rural communities since we’ve lost the family wage, year-round jobs the industry provided to our communities. Tourism and recreation also suffers as the health of forests and wildlife populations decline.
Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines should be commended for working together in a bipartisan fashion to end the gridlock on our federal forests. Curbing abusive lawsuits is one key to restoring active management and enabling collaborative groups to increase the pace and scale of projects that benefit the environment and the economy. Sen. Tester may have made a technically incorrect statement, but it reflects the frustrations of many Montanans who are ready to move past the old conflicts to restore the health of our forests and rural communities.
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