America has always been a country of big, revolutionary ideas. Great examples are the Constitution and Bill of Rights, which worked in concert to establish a form of government that serves as a beacon of freedom in the world and a model for other countries to follow.
Similarly, the Forest Reserve Act was such a revolutionary idea. Passed in 1891, it allowed presidents to set aside land for the public. Within the first decade, nearly 40 million acres had been put into the Forest Reserve System. This visionary act of conservation came at a time when commercial interests in the East were consuming timber lands on that side of the Mississippi at an alarming rate, destroying watersheds and wildlife habitat that entire communities depended on.
But this was also a time when much of the West was still unsettled and unexplored. Lawmakers in Washington, D.C. realized, remarkably, that they had a chance to do something no other country in the world had tried. Through this legislation and several other pieces that followed, they facilitated the creation of a national forest system unlike any other in the world. A system designed for the public’s use and enjoyment, both for recreation and for resource development. Now our Forest Service manages about 193 million acres that includes 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands.
America’s first Forest Service Chief, Gifford Pinchot, put it this way in a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in 1905: “Where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question shall always be answered from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run."
For more than a century, the pendulum of management of our national forests swung different directions, at times toward resource development and then back toward preservation. Montana was often ground zero for some of the conflicts that arose. Just take a fly over western Montana and you can still see on the ground how forest management has evolved and, at times, left lasting scars on the land.
In the southern Bitterroot you can still see the terraces from the 1960s and 70s when forest managers thought terracing slopes after a clear cut would encourage rejuvenation. You can still see entire sections of land, much of it private, that was clear cut during these years to feed mills in Missoula and elsewhere.
And if you go east toward Butte and Helena, you’ll see the hundreds of thousands of acres of lodgepole pine forests that are dead from the recent pine beetle infestation. This is a result of many things -- including climate change -- but also a consequence of overcrowded forests resulting from decades of fire suppression and an inability to do meaningful fuels reduction work because of a lack of funding and litigation.
But what you’ll also notice on your flight across western Montana’s national forests are herds of elk and deer taking advantage of high country spring meadows. You’ll see streams bubbling out of high clear lakes and down the mountains to merge with other trickles of snow melt to become the lifeblood of our state’s agriculture and tourism industries, along with providing much of the drinking water for our more than 1 million residents.
It is with this backdrop we continue the discussion of whether to transfer federal lands to state ownership. Bills will soon come before the Legislature that will both push for this move or, at a minimum, a bipartisan panel to analyze the impacts of the state taking much of the federal land within our borders.
We understand the frustration with federal land management, but the systematic dismantling of our national forest system by Montana lawmakers and those from other Western states is the wrong solution. As a nation, we have spent decades figuring out how best to manage our public lands. It’s an effort that is born financially by all American taxpayers, but often conducted over cups of hot coffee and boxes of stale doughnuts in little towns around the West -- places like Lincoln or Augusta or Townsend. It has also involved wrangling between state and federal lawmakers, who, if they’re doing their jobs right, are paying attention to those small-town meetings and taking what they hear back to the hallowed halls of their respective legislatures.
We believe the best way forward is to improve the many laws that govern the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The bureaucracy can be streamlined, but not thrown out. This is going to take leadership by Montana’s congressional delegation along with the delegations from other states like Idaho, Utah and Nevada. These officials need to understand that their inability to get meaningful federal land use legislation passed has created fertile ground for ideas like the dismantling of the national forest System. It has also created the system of gridlock where far too many good, collaborative projects fall victim to litigation brought by narrowly focused interest groups.
There is work to do on our national forests -- work that, up until the last 15 years, was part of the fabric of western Montana’s communities. We’re not talking about just logging, but trail work, thinning work, mining, restoration and habitat work. This work used to create jobs for local economies and connected us to the landscape surrounding us.
Last week Sen. Steve Daines said he was focused on addressing federal land management issues. Sen. Jon Tester has expressed that desire as well. Both seem sincere and both have ideas for legislation that could help. But it is going to take them working together if we want to see the beginning of a meaningful discussion in Washington.
In the meantime, rather than spending time and money on the effort to transfer federal lands to the state, we implore lawmakers to continue and encourage collaborative discussions about forest management, both at the local and state level.