Sherman Anderson: Correct the ‘Cottonwood’ decision | Columnists

June 12, 2022

Montana Economy

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With an active wildfire season ahead, state and federal authorities are doing everything they can to protect our communities, wildlife, water resources and forests. One way to do this is to break the impasse in the management of federal forests and allow the implementation of wildfire mitigation projects. Montana senators can help by supporting legislation to correct the “Cottonwood” decision that blocks common sense management of national forests.

In recent years, lawsuits related to the Ninth Circuit’s Cottonwood decision have halted dozens of forest management projects in western Montana. The move created a new layer of government bureaucracy and red tape, necessitating further consultation among federal agencies on forest plans each time a new species is listed under the Endangered Species Act, qu critical habitat is identified or “new information” becomes available.

The decision created numerous anti-management lawsuits, adding years of delays to forest thinning projects that can help reduce the size and intensity of today’s wildfires. In an infamous example, the Cottonwood decision halted the Stonewall Vegetation Project in the Lewis and Clark National Forest. Litigation over the project was not resolved until the Park Creek and Arrastra fires burned unhealthy, overgrown forests that would have been proactively addressed.

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The Cottonwood decision has prevented our public land managers from looking after the land and ensuring that our national forests remain safe and accessible for all Montanese to enjoy. It has also blocked efforts to improve wildlife habitat and protect our watersheds and water supplies. Many of these projects were developed by local collaborations with diverse interests and had already undergone lengthy environmental reviews.

As our forests burn, the ruling has only served to add more duplicate paperwork to our flawed forest management system and added more costs to American taxpayers. It has also hurt our economy by costing family jobs in lumber. We simply cannot afford to lose our ability to manage forests and provide affordable Montana-made wood products.

Senator Steve Daines has tabled a bill that would allow public land managers and wildlife biologists to track the best available science for consultation. This would provide much-needed clarity in current regulations, so agencies can achieve their conservation goals rather than being stymied by anti-forestry lawsuits. The bill is supported by leading wildlife and outdoor conservation groups such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the National Wild Turkey Federation.

There has been bipartisan support in the past to correct the Cottonwood decision and allow forest management projects to continue. This work began during the Obama administration, when President Obama’s Justice Department sought to overturn the Ninth Circuit’s decision all the way to the United States Supreme Court. While Republicans and Democrats in Congress — including Sen. Jon Tester — have backed legislation to address parts of the ruling, serial litigants are still using Cottonwood to block needed stumpage projects.

There is an urgent need to approve this new solution to the Cottonwood decision, but it is difficult for anything to pass in Congress these days. In a divided US Senate, Senator Jon Tester and Senator Steve Daines have an important opportunity to help advance a bipartisan solution through Congress. Time is running out for another active wildfire season. The time to act is now.

Sherman Anderson is the owner of Sun Mountain Lumber at Deer Lodge. His company is the largest private employer in Powell County and he is dedicated to keeping Montana’s forests healthy and resilient.