The interim chief of the U.S. Forest Service this week signed the first determination to remove dead and dying timber from fire-scarred landscapes in Montana, starting with a project on land burned in recent Sunrise fire near Superior.
Acting chief Vicki Christiansen told Sen. Steve Daines during an Energy and Natural Resources hearing this week that agency staff in Montana “activated quickly” and put together a team to begin salvage work in areas where it’s warranted.
“We put together a strike team to work on the salvage, work with the communities and work with the industry on what are the ideal places that industry could receive this salvage material,” Christiansen said. “I have signed the first one I expect at the Sunrise project on the Lolo National Forest.”
Christiansen said she anticipates signing the next four projects within the next two weeks using the “Emergency Situation Determination.” Neither she nor Daines said how many acres the Lolo project would encompass.
“Using the emergency situation determination is a very important tool, both for health and human safety and for the immediate threat of the product declining rapidly,” she said.
Christiansen’s announcement serves as a victory for Daines, who has lobbied for more salvage operations in Montana.
Daines helped slip forest management reforms into the 2018 federal spending bill which, among other things, streamlines projects by permitting new categorical exclusions for hazardous fuel reduction and the removal of dead and dying trees.
Daines said Forest Service regulations allow the agency to use the Emergency Situation Determination to conduct post-fire work. He said many areas impacted by the 2017 fires are frequently visited by the public, making the issue both a human safety and an economic issue.
“It’s critical that these areas be treated expeditiously to ensure public use can safely resume in a timely manner,” Daines wrote in a letter to Christiansen last month. “As the quality of the wood products quickly deteriorates after a fire, it is appropriate that the agency makes salvage operations a priority to ensure a project is economically feasible.”
Daines said the state’s timber industry employs roughly 7,700 workers, including Ravalli and Mineral counties, where unemployment levels remain high. Timber-related jobs create about $335 million in compensation for Montanans annually.
Salvaging dead and dying trees could sustain jobs and keep area mills operating, he added.
“Dead and dying trees are sitting in our National Forests, creating safety hazards and losing their economic value,” said Daines. “Clearing the debris will support good-paying timber jobs at nearby mills that have been waiting to take action.”
(Editor’s note: This story was corrected on June 8 to include the proper location of the approved salvage project on the Lolo National Forest)