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Is MT Congressman's Bill Bait-and-Switch for Logging Industry?

In 2017, more than 1.2 million acres burned in Montana  one of the state's worst wildfire seasons on record. (U.S. Forest Service/Wikimedia Commons)
In 2017, more than 1.2 million acres burned in Montana one of the state's worst wildfire seasons on record. (U.S. Forest Service/Wikimedia Commons)
May 24, 2019

HELENA, Mont. – With wildfire season approaching, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., has introduced legislation aimed at reducing their threat. But one wildfire expert calls the bill a "Trojan horse" for the logging industry.

Gianforte and 18 other members of Congress are proposing the "Resilient Federal Forests Act" to streamline forest-management projects. It would exempt logging and thinning projects up to 30,000 acres from scrutiny under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

But George Wuerthner, an ecologist and wildfire researcher, is skeptical of the bill's premise, saying logging could actually lead to more fires.

"In the process of logging, you open up the forest to more sunlight, which means the fuels that take this there do dry out quicker,” says Wuerthner. “You also open it up to more wind penetration, and wind in particular is one of the driving factors in a wildfire."

Wuerthner also notes that fine fuels, like branches and shrubs, drive forest fires, not trees.

The bill would allow for "categorical exclusions" from a NEPA review for projects up to 10,000 acres or up to 30,000 acres if the project is a collaboration.

Wuerthner worries the term "collaboration" isn't well defined in the bill. Gianforte says it would promote partnership at the local level and put timber-industry workers back to work.

Wuerthner believes fighting climate change is the best way to fight wildfires. He says there's a historical correlation between the conditions of a warmer climate and more extensive blazes.

"If you really wanted to address this situation, you would work to reduce the factors that are leading to climate change, which in our case is burning fossil fuels and so forth,” says Wuerthner.

When it comes to reducing carbon emissions, Wuerthner says there's an irony to this bill. Logging is one of the biggest sources of emissions in many Western states.

Wuerthner is the author of several books, including "Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy."

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT