Helena Independent Record: $20 million in federal money for forests

Montana forests managers got a $20 million boost Friday from the federal government to address the mountain pine beetle epidemic and general forest health.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is allocating $20 million to Montana for forest management and conservation programs.

It’s part of the same program under which last month the USDA said it was earmarking $40 million for Forest Service Region 2, where beetles have killed more than 2 million acres of pine trees in Colorado and Wyoming. Last week, the federal agency said it would spend an additional $14 million on damaged Idaho forests where the bark beetles are also boring into trees and killing them.

On Friday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said forest lands play a critical role in providing clean water and a healthier climate for all Americans, and the USDA is committed to protecting and preserving the important resource from pests like the bark beetle.

“These funds will help manage our forests and improve their health for future generations, and I look forward to continuing to work with the Montana delegation to address these important forest and watershed health issues together,” Vilsack said.

Montana’s senators were thrilled with the announcement. Democrats Jon Tester and Max Baucus have been working closely with the USDA to gain access to additional funding for the U.S. Forest Service lands in Montana.

“The pine beetle infestation in the Northern Rockies is a threat to our way of life, and we must do all we can to address climate change, and we must act to reduce its effects in order to ensure a brighter future for our children and grandchildren,” Baucus said.

Tester added that Montana needs a new way of managing federal forests, which is why he introduced the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. Part of the bill mandates logging on at least 100,000 acres, which Tester said he hopes would be done in areas where houses are built close to the forest and in places the pine beetles have hit hard.

“In the meantime, this additional funding will help the Forest Service reduce wildfire risk, safeguard watersheds and improve forest health,” Tester said.

On Friday, Tester invited Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg to “compare notes” on the bill, introduced last summer. Both Tester and Rehberg have held public listening sessions on the legislation, and Tester said he plans to make several “improvements” based on the input he’s received.

“I appreciate you holding listening sessions across Montana over the past few days,” Tester said in a written invitation to Rehberg. “Now that we each have feedback on the bill, I think it would serve Montanans well for us to discuss the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.”

Rehberg also has indicated that while the comments he heard on Tester’s bill varied, there was consensus: That something must be done to promote good forest stewardship.

The $20 million comes from the USDA budget, which already has been approved by Congress. Disbursement of the funds for Montana will be done by Leslie Weldon, the new regional forester for Region 1. She wasn’t able to be reached for comment on Friday.

A recent federal estimate noted that about 5 million acres of Montana forests have been affected by the infestation, up from about 2 million acres last year.

The additional funds will be especially welcome on the Helena and Beaverhead-Deerlodge national forests, which are among the most affected by beetles in Montana. More than half of the 983,000-acre Helena forest is infested, and one-third of the trees on the 3.4 million acre Beaverhead-Deerlodge forest have been attacked by the beetles.

“The last reconnaissance flight in the summer of 2009 showed about 585,000 acres were hit. That’s about 60 percent of the Helena forest,” said Kathy Bushnell, the Helena forest’s public information officer. “That includes 96,044 acres in the Townsend Ranger District; 296,474 acres on the Helena Ranger District; and 193,039 acres on the Lincoln Ranger District.”

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