National Forest Restoration work first pioneered in Montana

National Forest Restoration work first pioneered in MontanaSeveral weeks ago the Forest Service announced major plans to increase the pace of forest restoration work across the country. What does that mean? In practical terms it means more clean water for Americans, new jobs in the woods, increased fire safety for communities and better recreational access to our forests.

Forest restoration is a whole new way of doing business because it recognizes a larger diversity of forest values – from the importance of clean water to the value of vibrant rural economies and timber production. The process is rapidly gaining traction across the country as more and more citizens agree to achieve results together and as Congress recognizes the value of investing in winning programs.

Montana, with its long history of collaboration, has the distinction of being one of the first states in the nation to pioneer this creative, new approach to managing our national forests.

The Southwestern Crown of the Continent is one of the places where forest restoration work first got its start. The region sits along the southern and western boundary of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and includes the communities of the Blackfoot, Clearwater, and Swan River valleys. It’s a 1.5 million acre tapestry of working ranches, deep forests, craggy mountain peaks, abundant wildlife, and rural communities. Here, a group of community development organizations, university scholars, timber advocates and conservationists have put aside their differences and found a way to work together for the good of the land.

The end result? Their work has helped the Lolo, Flathead, and Helena National Forests hit their forest management goals and created more economic opportunity. For example, just last year forest restoration work in these three national forests created and maintained over 200 private sector jobs, reduced fire risk on over 4,000 acres of land, restored 14 miles of stream, treated 3,000 acres of noxious weeds, maintained over 160 miles of trail, and enhanced over 30,000 acres of wildlife habitat and watersheds. More good work is expected in coming years.

There are three reasons why forest restoration is currently spreading in significance across the country:

Threats are mounting – It’s no secret our forests are increasingly under attack. These assaults include altered fire patterns, bark beetles and other similar infestations, drought and climatic changes, and a legacy of eroding roads and mining activities. Compound those threats with a sagging timber economy and disappearing rural work force and it’s a recipe for pain at many levels.

Collaboration creates agreement – People from diverse backgrounds who were once at odds with each other are now coming together like never before. There is a growing recognition that solutions for the ailing health of our forests and forest communities are best achieved when people cooperate and figure it out together. The process creates more buy-in earlier on and helps escape the grid-lock that has defined forest management conflicts in the past.

Lawmakers fund winning strategies – Our congressional  leaders like solutions that work for many types of people. Restoration of National Forests is the new ‘zone of agreement’ which links forest jobs to clean water and healthy habitat and has emboldened support at very high levels. One of the most important sources of funding is called the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. This is the first year that Congress has authorized full funding for this program and is a rare sign of bipartisan support among lawmakers.

It’s exciting to see the pace and scale of forest restoration picking up across the nation. Here in Montana history is being made as the work we began is becoming emblematic of a broader philosophical agency shift toward a 21st century focus on local input, forest restoration and watershed management.

Craig Rawlings is CEO and President of Forest Business Network in Missoula, MT. Scott Brennan is acting regional director of The Wilderness Society in Bozeman, MT.

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