Congressional Bill Threatens the Future of Montana Forests

While many Montanans have been taking advantage of the unseasonably warm weather to recreate in our public lands, Montana Rep. Steve Daines and the U.S. Congress passed a bill on Sept. 18 that threatens the future of those very lands.

H.R. 1526, or the deceptively named Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, was passed as part of a package of bills in the Jobs For America Act. The bill proposes establishing millions of acres of federally protected forested lands as “Forest Reserve Revenue Areas,” with the revenue coming from the extensive and unprecedented logging of these areas. It would require at least half of federal forests across the United States to fall into this category, which includes not just National Forests, but also Wilderness Study Areas and what are known as Inventoried Roadless Areas — lands that have been identified by government reviews as roadless and suitable for federal conservation protections.

The sheer magnitude of this bill and the fundamental changes it would make are striking and unnerving. For example, 14 million acres of Montana forests could be designated as Revenue Areas, including 5.6 million acres that are currently “roadless,” according to the Montana Wilderness Association. In addition, the bill essentially privatizes control of these forested areas; the Forest Service would hand their control over to so-called “advisory committees” that would oversee logging activities in Revenue Areas. These committees would consist of elected officials and representatives of timber, grazing and recreational/off-road vehicle interests, according to a joint report developed by a number of organizations including The Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club.

Finally, 200,000 acres of each National Forest would be insidiously designated “community forest demonstration areas.” In these areas, the committees would not even have to comply with federal environmental regulations, nor would they have to consult with the Forest Service about logging activities taking place.

As part of the Jobs for America Act, H.R. 1526 will supposedly “create over 68,000 direct jobs and nearly 140,000 indirect jobs,” according to the House Committee on Natural Resources. The Outdoor Industry Association reports the bill could have a potential impact on the outdoor recreation industry, which employs 6.1 million people and contributes over $646 billion annually to the U.S. economy. The committee conveniently does not mention this.. Montana is currently a world-class destination for activities such as fishing, hunting, rafting and kayaking, and logging activities on the massive scale H.R. 1526 calls for could have severe impacts on those industries — not to mention the small towns that are supported by outdoor recreation.

There are also numerous concerns surrounding water quality, especially as 50 percent of water supplies in the West come from federal forests. Bozeman’s water supply comes from Lyman Creek in the Bridger Mountains as well as Hyalite Reservoir in the Gallatins. Imagine if a Revenue Area or a “community forest demonstration area” were created in the Hyalite watershed. The Forest Service would give up management of the watershed to an advisory committee — a committee that will not, first and foremost, be thinking about water quality.

This is a bill that will have a very discernable and potentially adverse impact on the lives and livelihoods on Montanans, which is why is so upsetting that Steve Daines has effectively snuck this bill around his constituents. There were no town halls or listening sessions concerning the bill, and Montanans — from the anglers and hunters to hikers and bikers — were left without a say in the future of their forests. It is frightening that the fate of our wild and public lands is in the hands of a few callous politicians.

Now, the U.S. Senate gets to decide what happens to H.R. 1526. If you would like your voice to be heard, please send your thoughts to Sen. Jon Tester at tester.senate.gov/?p=email_senator  and Sen. John Walsh at walsh.senate.gov/contact.cfm. Of course, Rep. Daines will continue to advocate for this bill and will most likely be a senator in about three months, so contact him at daines.house.gov/email-me1. Our politicians need to know that Montanans want to keep the last best place, truly, the last best place.