MISSOULA — Gov. Greg Gianforte wants to double the acreage of state lands in Montana being treated to reduce fire risk but he's also encouraging collaboration with federal land managers since fire doesn't stop at boundary lines.
When he was in Congress, Gianforte joined fellow Republicans Sen. Steve Daines, and then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in calling for more active forest management, speaking to reporters at the Lolo Peak Fire Camp in the midst of one of the worst fire seasons in decades.
Now with a somewhat smaller, but equally concerning fire season fading, and vested with the power of the governor's office, he's hoping to reshape Montana fire policy.
“Cutting timber to thin our forests is how we're going to become better stewards of the forest. We get healthier forests, there's more habitat for wildlife, more access for recreation jobs, and our forests become more resilient to wildfire,” Gianforte said. “So, everybody wins when we do more active forest management."
To that end, Gianforte told reporters during a recent Missoula appearance the state has identified 9 million acres of Montana land with "significant forest health issues".
"Just west of the capital in Helena, it's easy to see the problem, where as much as 90% of the forest is standing dead trees, it's literally a tinderbox,” he pointed out.
First on the list, Gianforte wants a significant jump in the amount of state acreage being treated through thinning and prescribed burns.
"To put it in perspective, last year the state only treated 11,000 acres. That's less than 0.3% of those acres that need urgent treatment. Clearly, we must do better. So, we've tasked DNRC, the State Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, to double the number of acres this year under active forest management,” Gov. Gianforte explained. “That's going to increase log supply. It's also going to make our forests healthier, so everybody wins." - Gov. Greg Gianforte (R-MT)
Gianforte says out of the 9 million acres, 4 million could benefit from cross-boundary treatment. He's also pressing for federal reform too, urging passage of the bipartisan Resilient Federal Forest Act.
"Just like fire, forest health problems don't stop at fence lines. It's critical that we continue to work together and partner across ownership boundaries to manage our forests,” Gianforte said. “And I've urged President Biden to work with the 90 independent groups that support this legislation and the bipartisan group of 75 bill sponsors in the House to get it passed into law so we have better tools in the box to manage our forests."
One persistent question, especially in Western Montana, is the infrastructure to handle the logs. That was illustrated in late August when Gianforte finished an upbeat visit to the St. Regis Mill, only to have Idaho Forest Group surprise him -- and everyone else -- by announcing the mill's closure.
Still, he remains optimistic about securing new investments for the industry which is key to keeping logging alive as a tool to fight fire.
In future stories, MTN News will be taking a closer look at the viewpoints of environmental and conservation groups when it comes to wildfire risk, forest health, and climate change.