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Governor’s advisory council assesses Montana forest conditions as prelude to logging

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Posted at 2:41 PM, Dec 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-12 16:41:30-05

Figuring out how to manage forests across a state as big and diverse as Montana is daunting, but one group is close to finalizing the first step: assessing forest conditions.

On Wednesday in Missoula, members of the Montana Forest Action Advisory Council tried to fill in some of the missing parts in a draft document that will help managers of all stripes assess their forests for possible logging or burning projects for years to come.

The Forest Action Advisory Council is an advisory body of 21 people with diverse backgrounds that Gov. Steve Bullock created to make sure a majority of Montanans could support a new state forest action plan . The need to write a plan was prompted by recent federal legislation and funding that encourages private, state, tribal and federal land management agencies to work together to reduce the severity of wildfire.

So similar to 2014, when Bullock identified more than 5 million acres of national forest land in Montana as a priority for management under the 2014 Farm Bill, the state forest action plan would assess all forested areas, regardless of ownership, to identify where management should occur first.

“What we assess frames how we prioritize,” Wyatt Frampton, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation forest plan manager, told the council. “The things that we assess are going to lead to how we develop our priority areas, and then our priority areas are going to be guiding where we implement. So we want to have a very robust and wide-reaching assessment that accurately and holistically describes the conditions of forested lands across the state.”

With that, Frampton handed out a 16-page outline of issues that the council needed to add to or modify before turning them over to 18 agency writers. The writers then have until May to turn the outline into the first draft of the Statewide Assessment of Forest Conditions.

So the council spent the morning trying to cover all aspects of issues such as forest health, working forests, wildfire risk, human health and biodiversity and habitat. The group has already met twice to brainstorm the issues. But they had no problem finding places where things hadn’t been included.

Each issue was broken down into existing conditions and strategies, threats and challenges, opportunities and data gaps. While some issues, like wildfire risk, had several bullet points, others were less detailed. In fact, species biodiversity and habitat had almost no bullet points, so the six members assigned to that struggled with a blank slate.

Pete Nelson of Defenders of Wildlife said that evaluating projects based on individual stands or structures could be at too small a scale to properly evaluate habitat important to wildlife. For example, connectivity or migration corridors can stretch over hundreds of miles, so scale is important.

“We still think having a stand-alone section on wildlife is a good idea,” Nelson said. “It’s provides a certain view on forest-health issues and it deserves its own section. As the forest health assessment is developed per ecosystem or forest type, you could have representative wildlife for those systems.”

Some of the data gaps include road ownership across the state. Questions over private versus county ownership have repeatedly led to landowners gating roads once considered public. That could cause problems with access to forest project areas.

Similarly, changing land ownership, such as from private to state or federal, could present a challenge. So too could shifting from one administration to another after an election. The plan will be finished only months before Bullock terms out as governor.

But DNRC spokesperson Paige Cohn said once the entire plan is finalized in September, it’s intended to be long-term. In May, the DNRC will ask the public for input on the draft forest assessment guide to be sure all the issues have been thoroughly vetted.

“At its first meeting, the council said they hope to continue this work beyond just one governor. So everything we’re doing right now is very long-term – it spans multiple governorships,” Cohn said. “(The governor) brought together proven collaborators who will develop an implementation strategy to make real on-the-ground progress to improve forest health and wildfire resiliency.”

The council’s next step is to identify priority areas for treatment, which they’ll begin on Thursday. To do that, Frampton said, they’ll overlay maps of forest health over those showing wildfire risk. Areas of poor forest health and high wildfire risk will be the highest priority.

The next advisory council meeting is Jan. 29-30 in Missoula.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com .