Open letter to the Ravalli County Collaborative from Bitterrooters For Planning (BFP):

In the spirit of collaboration, Bitterrooters For Planning offers these comments to the Ravalli County Collaborative regarding the Gold Butterfly USFS timber sale in the Sapphire Mountains.

We will submit more substantive, detailed comments to the Bitterroot National Forest; these remarks are, instead, tailored to issues over which the county actually has jurisdiction. We assert that, as an organization long and actively involved in land-use planning issues in our valley home, we have equal standing with the commissioners (at whose pleasure you serve) in such significant federal land-use issues within our county boundaries. Submitting formal comments to the agency responsible for the timber sale (USFS), while having informal conversations with those with whom we share this valley (yourselves), is the appropriate, democratic path.

The top two “purposes and needs” for the project in the Bitterroot National Forest’s June, 2018 Draft Environmental Impact Statement are to “improve landscape resilience” (reduce wildfire risk to private property) and to “provide timber products and related jobs.” These are issues in which the county commission, many residents and BFP have expressed much interest over time. With that in mind, BFP would like the collaborative to honestly consider what Ravalli County can realistically do about either.

In regard to the county’s responsibility in protecting private property from wildfire: we’d like to direct your attention to the latest (but by no means only) report detailing how the lack of a growth policy and subsequent planning in Ravalli County has cost taxpayers over time:

Please note within the report that, of the Montana counties studied, Ravalli County has almost twice as many homes built in “high wildfire hazard areas” between 1990 and 2016 as all the other counties combined. Also note that each home existing within these areas adds $9000+ to the cost of fire suppression efforts over time.

If current trends continue, that will add $4 million a year to such efforts into the future. Also note that one of the most effective tools that a county can utilize in order to minimize such cost to taxpayers is planning and zoning. Given that Ravalli County contributes the largest share of these costs, and the straightforward nature of the math, it follows that our county is responsible for millions of dollars of avoidable costs to taxpayers due to its lack of planning and zoning — far more than any stated or perceived benefits of a large, multi-year logging operation.

While it’s true that "providing timber products and related jobs” is within the Forest Service’s mandate, it’s not clear to BFP how satisfying this federal mandate is relevant to the business of our county government. The BNF's own economic analysis notes that “the timber sale may not generate local jobs and income for Ravalli County due to purchasers (mills) subcontracting work from elsewhere.”

Apart from incidental revenues, there is little local economic benefit to the county to be gained from promoting such extensive logging. Even as the economic benefits leave the county, the environmental costs will remain: harm to water quality and fisheries as well as to wildlife habitat.

While the romantic notion that logging watersheds hard enough may perhaps lure a major sawmill back to our valley is hard to shake, the reality is that this sort of backwards-looking governing is wasteful and in fact does a disservice to taxpaying citizens. Therefore, we feel it is incumbent on the county (and by extension on this committee) to justify time spent pursuing imaginary gains, when the real money lies in planning and zoning within high-risk fire areas, which are currently filling up with vulnerable homes.

As for the oft-repeated canard of fires “roaring out of the wilderness,” we’d like to remind this committee that several of the most significant fires in the last 18 years were man-caused and ignited along roads (Gash Creek, 2006), or within a mile of a trailhead (Blodgett Creek, 2000, and Roaring Lion, 2016). The Gold Butterfly project is not designed to decrease such fire risks, but instead may literally inflame them.

Of course, fire seasons are becoming increasingly severe due to a changing climate and, yes, much of the smoke we have been breathing these last few years has been from lightning-caused fires. However, far from spending county time and money trying to manipulate a federal agency charged with working for the benefit of all U.S. citizens, we believe it would be more effective for this committee to advise the commissioners on the regulation of development in fire-prone areas.

Assessing appropriate (read: significant) impact fees on such development, and addressing issues such as building design and materials, will help to relieve taxpayers who are currently forced to pick up the tab for the shortsighted decisions of homebuilders and developers.

Bill LaCroix, board bember, Bitterrooters For Planning