Last summer we learned that outdoor recreation in Montana accounts for $7 billion in consumer spending, supports 70,000 jobs, and generates $286 million in state and local taxes. Outdoor recreation is now far and above the biggest sector of Montana’s economy. That sector depends on public lands, especially those managed by the Forest Service.
We learned these numbers while Montana was experiencing one of its most devastating fire seasons in recent memory, threatening our communities and the outdoor recreation economy those communities depend on. Summer season business in Seeley Lake, for instance, came to an abrupt standstill soon after the Rice Ridge Fire erupted in late July. The most profitable time of year turned into a bust.
The supreme role that outdoor recreation plays in our economy and the increasing severity of our fire season underscore the need for smart forest reform legislation that enables the Forest Service to foster jobs and protect communities from wildfire.
The most urgent need is fixing how the Forest Service funds firefighting, because the current method is bankrupting the agency. Currently, the agency spends more than half its budget on fighting fires, having to plunder non-fire funds to pay the costs. This leaves the agency unable to conduct forest restoration projects that protect communities along the urban-wildland interface and unable to maintain campgrounds, picnic areas, trails, and other outdoor infrastructure.
The fix for this funding crisis is the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (S. 1842), which would grant land managers access to federal disaster funding instead of having to rob non-fire related forest management funds. This bill has bipartisan support, including from Sen. Jon Tester, and could easily pass before the next fire season.
A second critical step is properly funding the Forest Service. For years, Congress has stripped the agency’s budget to the bone. Following a tough fire year, President Donald Trump proposed cutting the Forest Service’s budget by 16 percent, including a staggering 84 percent cut to trail funding and 56 percent cut to road maintenance. These cuts would break the agency’s back and make it impossible for it to conduct even its most basic functions.
Finally, Congress needs to reauthorize the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. This program empowers collaborative efforts across Montana, including the Southwestern Crown Collaborative, which has created more than 150 jobs, secured more than $50 million in investments, reduced fire risk near communities, and restored tens of thousands of acres of forests.
Instead of supporting these common-sense solutions, Rep. Greg Gianforte and Sen. Steve Daines are pushing unreasonable bills to rewrite national forest management from the top-down. Rep. Gianforte has signed on to a bill (HR 2936) written by a congressman from Arkansas that would eliminate public input and environmental review on projects of up to 46 square miles. The Senate is attempting to negotiate a slightly more realistic bill, but the leading proposal there (S. 2068) would still curtail public input while requiring the Forest Service to double timber production, regardless of funding or market conditions.
Given the current political gridlock, the outlook for bipartisan agreement on a complete rewrite of national forest management is dim. That means another year of no action to reduce fire risk or address the crisis in fire funding that threatens our outdoor economy and thousands of Montana jobs.
Sen. Daines and Rep. Gianforte have repeatedly blamed “environmental extremists” for our state’s wildfires. Scapegoating and divisive rhetoric won’t improve the health of our forests, reduce the severity of our wildfires, make our communities safer, or bolster our outdoor economy. It also won’t put people back to work in the woods.
What will help are realistic solutions and real leadership to address the issues facing our forests. Anything less is selling the people of Montana, and our forests, short.
– Gabriel Furshong is interim executive director of Montana Wilderness Association. Marne Hayes is executive director of Business for Montana Outdoors. Dave Chadwick is executive director of Montana Wildlife Federation. John Arnold is owner of Headhunters Fly Shop in Craig.