FLORENCE — Two federal cabinet secretaries joined two-thirds of Montana’s congressional delegation at the Lolo Peak fire base to decry the effect of lawsuits on firefighting.

“We can’t do anything about the weather, but we can do things about forest management that make sense so we can diminish forest fires in the future,” agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said after a closed briefing with fire incident commanders on Thursday. He was joined by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte in arguing that litigation was keeping forests in an unhealthy state.

Perdue, whose department oversees the Forest Service, noted that fire spending has grown from 15 percent to 55 percent of the agency’s annual budget. He said the agency needs to get away from emergency funding of fires to an ongoing funding format. That would give its personnel more resources to efforts reduce hazardous fuels in the forest, such as the Stonewall Vegetation project near Lincoln that’s currently blocked by a lawsuit and burning in the Arrastra Creek and Park Creek fires.

“That’s because of litigation that has stopped fire management,” Perdue said “We talked about Stonewall; that’s a good example of what’s happened. That’s what’s evolved into the 55 percent because you couldn’t do some of these things that you wanted to. It is a cause-and-effect situation.”

Gianforte said the federal Equal Access to Justice Act, which allows those who successfully sue the government to recover their legal costs, needed reform to reduce “frivolous lawsuits.”

“It’s been hijacked by environmental extremists who use it to create a business model to shut down almost every forest management project here in the state,” Gianforte said. “Over 50 percent of planned forest management projects in the state are challenged in court, tied up, and ultimately they burn.”

Forest Service officials in Missoula could not confirm that claim on Thursday. However, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester had to retract a similar claim in 2015 when the Montana Democrat initially said every logging sale was being litigated, and then restated to say half of 2014’s awarded timber volume was under litigation. An examination by the Washington Post found that 14 percent of the 97 sales had active litigation and only four were enjoined from any logging.

Alliance for the Wild Rockies director Michael Garrity, whose organization sued the Forest Service over the Stonewall project, said AWR was actively litigating three timber projects and following a federal appeal of a fourth. There are at least 30 Montana timber projects currently listed on Forest Service websites.

“Democracy only works if you have citizen oversight of the government,” Garrity said. “If they don’t like us suing, there’s a simple solution. Mr. Gianforte and the others need to oversee the Forest Service and ask them why they aren’t following the law.”

Zinke, who was re-elected to Montana’s lone congressional seat last November before joining the Trump Administration in the Interior Department, said front-line government workers were too burdened by micromanagement and bureaucracy to get out in the field.

“We need more resources on the front line, to give them the flexibility they need and get rid of the lawsuits so they can do their jobs” Zinke said. “That’s where we can focus on near-term gains.”

Tester also visited the fire on Tuesday and discussed efforts to end “fire-borrowing” within the Forest Service budget that strips forest management dollars away to pay for wildfire activity. While Tester called for legislation that would cover wildfires more like hurricanes or floods, Perdue said he looked for passage of the Resilient Federal Forests Act authored by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Arkansas and a related bill by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

Rain started falling on the Lolo Peak fire shortly before the Washington leaders started their press conference. They briefly toured the incident command post, which now supports 1,237 personnel fighting the 34,184-acre fire.

“We are tired of breathing the smoke,” Daines said. “We’re tired of seeing catastrophic wildfires. Either we’re going to better manage our forests, or the forests are going to manage us. We’re spending too much time and money fighting fires. We need to instead spend time and money managing our forests.”

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