U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte hosted a field briefing in Hamilton Tuesday in search of ideas on what Congress’ role should be in addressing the issue of wildfire.
But the fact that the congressman limited testimony to three individuals didn’t sit well with many in attendance — including a contingent who chanted “Listen to the People” from the Ravalli County administrative office’s front lawn at one point in the briefing. Field briefings are limited to invited participants.
The briefing began and ended with people asking Gianforte to commit to hold public hearings in Montana that would allow everyone to offer their opinion on issues ranging from wildfire to the future of wilderness study areas.
The field briefing titled “Wildfire Management and Response: Challenges and Opportunities” was hosted by the Interior, Energy and Environment subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Overreach. Gianforte chairs the subcommittee.
The panel included the U.S. Forest Service’s national director of fire and aviation management, Shawna Lagarza, from Washington D.C., retired Forest Service employee Richard Stem, and Ravalli County Commissioner Jeff Burrows.
Immediately after Gianforte pounded the gavel to begin the briefing, former Ravalli County commissioner Jim Rokosch interrupted the congressman.
“I would like to ask you if you ever intend to hold a public hearing and listen to members of the public who would like to provide you input on matters of fire management and management of public resources like wilderness study areas,” Rokosch said.
After Gianforte replied this was an official congressional event and that he would be willing to talk with people at another time, Rokosch and several others left the briefing.
“My goal today is learn from you what we can do in Congress to help,” Gianforte told the panel. “I believe better is always possible.”
In 2017, Gianforte said, wildfires burned more than 10 million acres, including 680,000 in Montana in what would become the most expensive year in the country’s history for fire suppression costs. This year, wildfires have already burned more than 5 million acres.
An estimated 58 million acres of the 193 million acres managed by the Forest Service are rated at high risk for ecologically destructive wildfire.
“Wildfire is an incredibly important issue for our state because it threatens our homes, our livilihoods, and our environment,” Gianforte said. “I want the beautiful resources we have in Montana, including our public lands, to be there for the next generation to enjoy.”
Firefighting resources are already stretched thin this year as fires rage across California, Oregon and Washington state.
And they're just the most recent hot spots in what’s been a seemingly continuous series of fires burning somewhere in the country since last year.
“This fire season has been long and arduous already," Lagarza said. “In fact, we’re not even calling it fire seasons any longer. We’re calling it fire years. We are already maxed out for 28,000-plus people. We have the National Guard activated in California, Oregon, possibly Washington … We have Australians, New Zealanders. The best thing that we’re doing right now is just ensuring that our forces are well-rested, prepared and making safe decisions on the fire.”
Burrows said local Forest Service officials should be granted more flexibility in the use of categorical exclusions in making management decisions. A categorical exclusion allows federal land managers to bypass some of the process required in approving a project.
The current National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process needs to be streamlined to “remove some of the red tape for forest managers and decision makers on the forest,” Burrows told the congressman. “NEPA’s litigation-driven approach has forced the Forest Service into exhaustive NEPA analysis. This exhaustive analysis, along with a major shift in federal policy, is why we observed national timber harvest levels drop significantly over the past decades.
“In Ravalli County, the cumbersome NEPA process has actually resulted in portion of vegetation management projects burning before the analysis can be finished,” Burrows said.
On the flip side, Burrows said the relationship between Ravalli County and the Bitterroot National Forest has improved.
“Five years ago, discussions between the Forest Service and county commissioners were tense and formal and were typically unproductive,” Burrows said. “Today, the Forest Service and county commissioners meet informally once a month to discuss upcoming projects and issues. This dialogue has resulted in a working relationship that allows forest decision-makers to understand local impacts and issues, and for local government an opportunity to help inform Forest Service decision-makers of local challenges.”
At the conclusion of the briefing, Gianforte talked with a small group of people who gathered around him. Several pressed him on holding public hearings on natural resources issues.
Gianforte replied that his door is always open to all Montanans, but the fact their voices weren’t part of the public record didn’t sit well with some.
"The impromptu exchange that occurred between Rep. Gianforte and Ravalli County residents regarding his wilderness study area legislation was no public meeting, as Gianforte tried to characterize it,” said Marilyn Wolff, a Montana Wilderness Association member from Stevensville. “We asked him again and again when he was planning on holding a proper public meeting, and he refused to answer the question, again showing disdain for Montanans who want a say on public lands."
State Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, said she doesn’t agree that the public doesn’t have a voice in these issues.
“I’m available to anyone who wants to speak to me as a state representative,” Manzella said. “The commissioners are readily available. You heard Congressman Gianforte make himself available and take a lot of public comment today. So I think it’s more a matter of people aren’t make use of the opportunities they are given.”