Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the court ruling doesn't require the U.S. Forest Service to update their forest management plan, but to review it and then potentially create a new one. A previous version said "the U.S. Forest Service needs to draw up a new management plan for 12 million acres of critical Canada Lynx habitat." Yellowstone Public Radio regrets the error.
Montana’s senators are trying to reverse a controversial federal court case out of Bozeman they say is partly to blame for the state’s devastating wildfires. But some environmentalists say it’s actually an assault on the Endangered Species Act.
At a congressional hearing last week, Republican Senator Steve Daines said there’s a saying in Montana: “Either we’re going to manage the forests, or the forests are going to manage us.”
And he says a recent 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling known as the Cottonwood decision means the forests are managing Montana.
Daines testified alongside Democratic Senator Jon Tester in support of their bill to reverse the Cottonwood decision, which says the U.S. Forest Service needs to review its current management plan to ensure it protects 12 million acres of critical Canada Lynx habitat. If it doesn't, they'll need to draw up a new one. Canada Lynx are on the threatened species list.
But Tester says a new forest management plan can take decades to write. So in the meantime:
“Everything stops," he says. "All the recreational opportunities stop, the tree cuts stop, trail maintenance stops while they redo this forest plan.”
A spokesperson for Lewis and Clark National Forest says revising a forest management plan doesn’t stop work, but it can hamper it.
Tester says their bill will stop lawsuits from forcing entire forest management plans to change.
Instead, if a lawsuit is filed, agencies could address it on a smaller scale.
“Deal with it at where that tree cut is going to happen, or where that road restoration is going to happen, or where that culvert's going to be taken out to make a stream flow right, or wherever it might be," he says. "Deal with it on a much smaller basis where the problem really exists and continue to implement the forest plan that took decades to write up.”
“Politicians are now trying to change the Endangered Species Act so that they don’t have to do analysis when new critical habitat has been designated,” says John Meyer, executive director of the Bozeman-based Cottonwood Environmental Law Center.
He was the attorney who initially filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service in 2015.
Meyer says the agency needs to look at how forest-wide timber sales could impact the imperiled lynx habitat, and adds that a review of the current plan is already happening, and will be done next month.
“So before Congress starts having hearings and tries to change the Endangered Species Act, we should wait to see what the biologists say in November,” he says.
In their testimony last week, both senators said revising the management plan hampers the U.S. Forest Service in mitigating wildfires. While Meyers concedes his lawsuit could slow down forest management projects, he says it isn’t the underlying source of wildfires. Instead, the environmental lawyer says, it’s climate change.
“We have longer fire seasons, they’re way worse, and it’s an issue that needs to be addressed,” Meyers says.
Tester agrees that climate and weather cause wildfires; however:
“If we’re able to manage the forests to meet the needs of our ever-changing climate, I think it will make our forests more resilient," he says. "Are we still going to have forest fires? You betchya we are. Are they going to burn like they did this summer? Well, time will tell. If we’re able to remove the dead timber and move forward in a commonsense way, with public input along the way, then I think we’re doing the forest a service, wildlife a service, fisheries a service, and fix the situation.”
Tester says he expects the bill to be amended by the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. If it gets out of that committee, he says, he and Daines will try and win support for it on the Senate floor.