- Associated Press - Monday, July 18, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service on Monday for the state to play a bigger role in forest management on federal lands, which officials say will speed up backlogged logging projects.

Forest management and the declining timber industry have emerged as major issues in this year’s governor’s race, with Weyerhaeuser announcing last month that it would close a Columbia Falls lumber and plywood mill. The closure will put about 100 people out of work in addition to 100 administrative jobs that are being eliminated or moved with Weyerhaeuser’s purchase of Plum Creek Timber.

With the Chessman Reservoir as a backdrop, Bullock, Forest Service Regional Forester Leanne Marten and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director John Tubbs signed the Good Neighbor Authority agreement, which was authorized under the 2014 federal Farm Bill.

The agreement will allow the state to work on behalf of the Forest Service on federal land, such as conducting environmental analyses for logging projects. Forest management, including logging trees for fuel reduction, is important as fire seasons grow longer and more intense, U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Robert Bonnie said.

But most of the Forest Service’s budget is being spent fighting fires, and the number of non-fire Forest Service employees has dropped 39 percent since the 1990s, Bonnie said.

“This allows us to get more work done more quickly,” Bonnie said of the agreement.

Two logging and restoration projects in the Flathead National Forest and the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest will be the first conducted under the signed agreement, but Bullock said two other projects have been undertaken without a formal deal.

The Chessman Reservoir project, which logged more than 400 acres of trees killed by the recent mountain pine beetle outbreak from Helena’s main water source, was the first example of a federal-state logging and restoration partnership, Tubbs said.

“We’re already out there doing this,” Tubbs said.

Greg Gianforte, Bullock’s Republican opponent in the November election, criticized Bullock for waiting so long to sign the agreement after it was authorized in 2014. At least 18 other states have already entered into similar agreements, the Bozeman businessman said.

“We’ve already lost 600 timber jobs under his watch, including 100 job losses just announced last month in Columbia Falls,” Gianforte said.

Bullock dismissed Gianforte’s comments as part of the “silly season” of election politics, and said the state and federal forest collaboration was happening long before Monday’s signing.

“We’ve been doing the work even without a piece of paper signed,” Bullock said.

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