JEFFERSON COUNTY — Jefferson County Commissioner Leonard Wortman leans against a stock trailer and laments the state of the timber on the National Forest land that surrounds him, in nearly every direction, on a recent morning.  

“When I was kid I worked for all the ranchers, and everybody ran cows up in the mountains,” Wortman says. “And we used to go through the trees on a dead run on a horse, chasing them, because they were open. Now you can’t even ride a horse through some of that stuff, where you used to be able to go through it at a dead run. And that’s the way the forest is supposed to be.”

While the national forests of Jefferson County will likely never be the way Wortman remembers them, Dave Sabo, district ranger for the Butte Ranger District of Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, says two projects — one recently completed and one seemingly on the verge of being approved — go some way toward getting things back to how Wortman and others want them.

And the projects — which both relied on the input of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Working Group, a committee of diverse stakeholders who seek to come to a consensus about Forest Service projects — show the potential for collaboration to help work get done on public land.

Wortman is a member of the BDWG, as is Tony Colter of Deer Lodge’s Sun Mountain Lumber, Nick Gevock of Helena’s Montana Wildlife Federation, Boulder-area rancher John Kountz and Mark Thompson of Butte’s Montana Resources, among others who represent area conservation, timber, wildlife, agricultural, motorized recreation, mining and governmental interests.

The group’s ultimate goal, Colter says, is to get people behind the Forest Service taking action on public lands: “We’re trying to make these projects more palatable to the public.”

According to Colter, members of the BDWG were involved in the planning process for both the Boulder Lowlands and the Red Rocks projects, taking field trips to the project areas and offering their input about what they wanted to see the Forest Service accomplish.

The result of their collaborative input can be seen just north of Butte, in what’s known as the Boulder Lowlands Vegetation Project. Completed last fall and spanning an approximately 10,000-acre area of the Lowlands Creek drainage, the project involved felling and salvaging nearly 1,800 acres of mountain-pine-beetle-killed lodgepole pine trees as well as removing conifers on 15 acres where they were encroaching on quaking aspen habitat.

And the BDWG has also contributed to the planning of a similar project that’s located on 79,000 acres that lie just north of the Boulder Lowlands project area. Known as the Red Rocks Vegetation Project, it will involve the treatment of nearly 7,000 acres, much of it also devastated by beetle kill.

According to the Forest Service’s proposed action, that treatment would include clearcutting 127 acres, salvaging and thinning 3,828 acres, slashing and burning 2,845 acres and enhancing aspen habitat on 253 acres. The project would also involve rehabbing roads, building about 19 miles of temporary roads and conducting a variety of watershed improvements, such as installing beaver analog structures, replacing culverts and planting willows.

Dave Sabo, district ranger for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest’s Butte Ranger District, says he expects a decision about whether to move forward to come from Forest Supervisor Melany Glossa later this year. And if Glossa gives it the go ahead, work could begin on Red Rocks next year, Sabo says.

While that might seem soon, the idea of harvesting beetle-killed timber in this area was first proposed back in 2010, when the devastation from mountain pine beetle led the Forest Service to conduct a rapid assessment of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest that sought to identify areas of most imminent need for treatment.

The very first landscape priority identified in that assessment was the Boulder River, where the report noted there “are a variety of values at risk.”

But that rapid assessment led to a prolonged period of inaction.

Then, in 2014, the process got a boost with the passage of that year’s Farm Bill, which included a pair of provisions that allowed the Department of Agriculture to expedite the review process to address qualifying insect and disease infestations on National Forest System lands.

A year later, in the winter of 2015, work on the Boulder Lowlands project finally started, with two primary goals: “increase the resiliency of the areas to insect and disease infestation” and “reduce the risk of wildfire to local communities and surrounding lands,” according the project’s decision memo.

When the project was completed last fall, a great many dead trees had been removed and shipped to RY Lumber in Townsend, which produced some 10 million board feet of lumber from the timber. And a quarter of the proceeds from that timber sale went into the coffers of Jefferson County, via what’s known as a 25% fund, which provides that percentage of the Forest Service’s receipts to local governments in lieu of the property taxes the federal agency doesn’t pay.

While the Boulder Lowlands project proceeded, Sabo and others were working to get the Red Rocks project off the ground, with the input of the BDWG. Despite the varied backgrounds and interests of the group’s members, their hopes for the projects largely overlapped, with stakeholders agreeing on the need to remove dead lodgepoles in order to reduce fire risk, improve habitat for elk and other wildlife, preserve range for cattle grazing and otherwise improve forest health.

“You hear a lot about collaboration, but this it in action here,” Gevock says.

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The BDWG has played an important role in the planning process, but so have other area stakeholders, like Gary Carlson, owner of the Carlson Ranch, which sits right in the Red Rocks project area.

After attending several public meetings related to the project, Carlson says he was pleased with the aims of the project – and with the collaborative group.

“My impression was there’s an ability in that group (the BDWG) to communicate issues fairly and deal with all sides and say, hopefully, there’s a way to arrive at a consensus for the parties that have interest in a project, so that when the EA (environmental assessment) is released and the final public comments are considered, it will get through without ligation,” Carlson says.

But not everyone is sure that will happen.

Michael Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, says his group hasn’t decided if it will do what it has done about 90 times before, by his own count: sue the federal government over a project on public land.

Asked whether Red Rocks would be subject to litigation from AWR, Garrity says, “I don’t know. We’d have to discuss it with our attorneys.”

While he says he’s not sure how he’ll proceed in his opposition to what he calls a “massive clear cutting all along the Continental Divide,” Garrity claims his grouphas  a greater than 80 percent success rate at stopping projects.

“Sometimes we won in court,” Garrity says, “and sometimes we won because they pulled their decision after we sued.”

But the tactic has earned a number of critics, including Carlson, who calls litigation mostly “an obstructionist type thing” and Montana Senator Steve Daines, a Republican who recently proposed a number of amendments to this year’s Farm Bill that would limit opportunities for litigating over Forest Service projects.

Among Daines’ seven forestry amendments to the Farm Bill were provisions that would establish a pilot program under alternative dispute resolution could be used instead judicial review for certain Forest Service projects and that would require plaintiffs in cases against the Forest Service to demonstrate they are "likely to succeed on the merits" before a court can issue a preliminary injunction against forest management projects.  

Another amendment would apply specifically to projects like Red Rocks that involve collaborative groups like the BDWG, requiring any individual or entity objecting to a project to meet with the Forest Service to resolve their objections before filing a petition for review of a collaborative project in court. It would also allow the Forest Service to dismiss the project if an objector failed to appear for the meeting.

While those amendments did not make it into the Farm Bill that passed the Senate this week, a spokesperson for Daines said he would continue to push to have them included when the Senate and the House go to conference on their bills. 

“Too many Montanans have been harmed by mismanaged forests, litigation from fringe environmental extremists and excessive red tape,” Daines said in a statement. “It is important we make reforms that lead to healthier forests, more jobs and reduced risks of wildfire.”

While those are all aims that Gevock says he supports, he says he and the Montana Wildlife Federation disagree with the kinds of reforms Daines is calling for.

Gevock says its “easy to criticize lawsuits,” but the real threat to forest health has to do with Congress’ propensity to “continually cut the Forest Service budget and then complain that they (the Forest Service) don’t get any work done.”

“We live in a country where we can sue the government if we don’t think they’re following the law,” Gevock says. “But you can’t expect the Forest Service to plan good projects if they don’t have funds.”

But while members of the collaborative and other stakeholders don’t see all issues exactly the same, Gevock says that shouldn’t stop progress on public lands, through projects like Red Rocks.

“These are the kind of things that we come together on, that we can reach broad consensus on,”Gevock says. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have serious discussions and we don’t disagree on things. But the key is to come together on things we can find common ground on.”

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