TOWNSEND — Ed Regan can rattle off a list of timber sales under litigation that takes more fingers than he's got to count on.
The resource manager at RY Timber's sawmill here listed about a dozen projects east of the Continental Divide that have been a part of a lawsuit or a threatened lawsuit, saying each one that results in a delay of logging slows production at the mill.
"The problem that continues to plague us is lawsuits," he said Monday. "I want to see restraints on runaway litigation."
Timber supply is the No. 1 issue facing his mill, Regan told Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, Montana's newest congressman, who toured three mills around the state over the last few days during Congress's July break.
"Not every timber sale gets sued, but it seems to be every one gets threatened," Regan said.
Montana's timber industry has been in decline since the 2008 housing market collapse, when everyone stopped buying new homes for a while. Mills have shut down or cut jobs around the state, and though a recent tariff on softwood imports from Canada has helped, Regan said, there's no clear light at the end of the tunnel.
RY is operating at just a shift and a half a day and running at 60 percent of capacity. Regan has 75 employees at the Townsend mill and 75 in Livingston, not including office staff. At full production, he'd employ 220 between both sites. RY pays an average wage of $16 an hour, with full benefits.
Regan says he struggles to get enough logs to keep things running because lawsuits often delay timber sales on National Forest Service land. He estimated more than half the timber sales he engages in end up in litigation or under the threat of litigation.
Two organizations make up most of the lawsuits RY has been involved with, Regan said — Alliance For The Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council.
On Monday, Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said he'd rather see Gianforte focus his efforts on overhauling the Forest Service, an agency he called "a huge bureaucracy that's completely run amok."
"If Gianforte doesn't like it (litigation), instead he should figure out why the Forest Service has such a hard time following the law. Why are they serial law-breakers?"
Gianforte said he's touring mills in the state to learn about ways to help the ailing timber industry. He doesn't have any legislation planned but does sit on the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Gianforte tried to make timber a focus of his bid for governor in the fall of 2016, repeatedly attacking Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat who won re-election, on what Gianforte called a failure to do enough for the industry. The congressman found himself in hot water after falsely claiming he had the endorsement of the Montana Wood Products Association, which did not make an endorsement.
"The challenge for Montana is if we lose these mills, we lose the ability to manage our forests," Gianforte said Monday. "For dead and dying timber, that's a fire hazard. We ought to be able to find a simpler path through that. ... We need to look at these and figure out what common-sense approach makes sense."
Garrity said that isn't what new studies show.
"(Gianforte and RY) have a different angle that isn't based on science. Dead timber doesn't cause fire. The Forest Service's own scientists say fires are caused by hot, dry weather; windy days; and ignition source."
Garrity said that recent studies found dead trees are usually less flammable because they don't have pitch and needles.
"They're not as flammable as a dried-out tree," he said. "The only proven science that logging helps firefighters is logging around someone's own home."
He also said logging is a contributor to global warming, which brings potential for larger fires and other environmental damage.
"The warming climate is the big cause of fires, and forests are huge carbon sinks, so cutting down more forest is just going to make climate change worse. We have more hot, dry summers. It's resulting in more fish kill like what happened in the Yellowstone River last year. When you log more, that reduces the shade for small streams and rivers."
While some research has shown dead trees do not contribute to wildfire, scientists, the timber industry, government agencies, and politicians have clashed recently, each citing studies that further their own point.
A part of the 2014 Farm Act championed by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, allows for increased logging of pine beetle-killed timber, but "there hasn't been enough of it fast enough," Regan said.
RY also hasn't seen much happen from the Good Neighbor Agreement that Gov. Steve Bullock signed last July. The agreement allows the state to work with the federal government to let the Forest Service make agreements or contracts with states for management on their lands.
There's been one project completed near White Sulphur Springs, and the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation are drafting agreements for a project near Deer Lodge and a multi-year program of work on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Helena-Lewis and Clark, and Custer-Gallatin National Forests, a spokeswoman for the governor said Monday. Additional projects are being evaluated on the Lolo and Kootenai National Forests.
Regan said there's plenty of timber in the state to keep all the mills running, it's just a matter of access. RY Timber needs 68 million board feet a year to run at full capacity. That's about 17,000 log truck loads.
"We haven't seen those numbers from the Forest Service until last year. We need that to continue every year," he said.
Regan estimated the mills east of the Continental Divide need about 110 million board feet a year to operate and are dependent on the Forest Service for about half of their supply.
He's started getting logs from Wyoming and southeastern Idaho, traveling up to 300 miles. Wood is cheaper there because so many mills there have gone out of business, but the cost of transportation negates some of the savings. "When I first came here in '77, there were over 30 (large) mills," Regan said. "Now it's down to eight big ones."
Private supplies are dwindling. About a third of RY's timber came from forest service land in 2014, but the mill expects it will need 60 percent of its supply from Forest Service land within two years.
Regan pitched several changes to Gianforte, starting with limiting appellate jurisdiction in federal court for all dead, diseased, and dying timber sales on Forest Service lands that are designated as suitable for timber management. That would stop some legal challenges before they get started.
"People think I'm radical for suggesting that, but I think it's the answer," Regan said.
He also wants to see changes to the Equal Justice for All Act that would limit reimbursement for legal fees based on the number of successful counts in a lawsuit. For example, if a logging project is challenged on 10 different counts but only one is successful, payment of legal fees would only be 10 percent.
Garrity questioned the benefits of changing the Equal Access to Justice Act.
"When we sue, we're suing because we think they're doing an illegal timber sale," he said. "That's the whole purpose of what we're doing. We might try several different counts, but all with the same purpose."