Today in Missoula, Senator Steve Daines held the second of three meetings he’s called to talk timber issues. He’ll do the same in Bozeman tomorrow.
The Republican Freshman Senator is calling the meetings “Timber Management Reform Roundtables,” and he’s invited mostly timber industry representatives to give him input on what they need to maintain or grow their operations.
An often-repeated theme is the need to do something about litigation, lawsuits from environmental groups that delay or derail timber sales. Senator Daines told the group it’s a top priority for him.
"Unfortunately, the people who are not coming to these meetings are the biggest problems right now on this litigation challenge we face," Daines said. "And there's some good ideas out there and we could come together and say lets go forward with the reform to litigation. Again, recognizing the right of individuals to challenge. But I think it's the habitual litigation, and perhaps depending on the eye of the beholder, the abuse of that process that's caused us all have us all tied up all the time."
The Forest Service says that less than half of the timber volume it sold in 2014 is currently under litigation. And Senator Daines didn’t invite groups that have filed timber sale lawsuits to his meetings on forest management reform. I asked him about that after today’s meeting.
"Some of these groups just are not part of this collaborative process. Over the course of a number of years across Montana they seem to be outside of this process versus in it. We'd love to have dialog with some of these groups, but they're difficult to bring to the table, to bring to meetings like this."
Asked if it would be fruitful to bring these groups to the table, Daines said, "if they are looking for ways to solve this problem of the fact that we've seen our timber harvest decline by about 82 percent in Montana on federal lands, and they have constructive ideas around how we can solve that problem, I'd like to very much invite that conversation."
Senator Daines says he thinks that, politically, 2015 is the best window of opportunity he’s got to get a bill changing timber management on federal lands through Congress. At today’s meeting in Missoula and Tuesday in Columbia Falls, he said that’s only going to happen if Montana’s entire Congressional delegation works on legislation together.
Daines says he’s been having good discussions with Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat. But Daines isn’t backing the collaborative forest management bill Tester has been working on for years, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, or FJRA. It would protect more than 700,000 acres of public land in western Montana as wilderness, in exchange for expedited logging on three national forests here.
I asked Senator Dains if the bill he wants to pass this year could include work already done on Tester’s FJRA bill.
"I think what we need is to get legislation that can pass the United States House, can pass the United States Senate, and get signed by the President. I think it's gonna take something more comprehensive in nature, in the sense of all 10 of Montana's National Forests versus two or three. So I'm looking at this pretty pragmatically. What can we do to get a piece of legislation through Congress, on the President's desk and signed. I think it's going to be something more comprehensive based on what I've seen the appetite of Congress is today.
Senator Daines is holding the last of his three “Timber Management Reform Roundtables” in Bozeman tomorrow morning.