Forest management bill to reverse the Cottonwood Resolution clears Senate committee

Montana’s congressional delegation has called it a top priority for forest management, a measure to roll back a federal appeals court ruling known as the “Cottonwood Resolution” that had been advanced by a key panel in the US Senate, suggesting a possible reversal of a 2015 mandate that critics say had A chilling effect on dozens of timber projects that will improve the health of national forests.

Meanwhile, Cottonwood’s proponents insist it promotes an enhanced degree of environmental analysis necessary on landscapes reeling from the transformative effects of climate change, including rising rates of intense wildfires and drought in protected wildlife habitats.

As a result of Cottonwood’s decision, the US Forest Service (USFS) was asked to re-consult the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on completed forest plans in national forests inhabited by the Canadian lynx, prompting some federal courts to halt timber during the consultation phase, including Several projects in Northwest Montana. Critics of the decision say it creates a never-ending analytic loophole that has benefited “marginal” environmental groups, effectively setting up a litigation trap for FLA agencies.

US Senator Steve Danes, R-Montana, sponsored new legislative action (2561) to overturn the Cottonwood Resolution which was passed by the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on July 21 by a 16-4 bipartisan vote. The bill was supported by the entire Montana congressional delegation and committee chair Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, as well as stakeholders ranging from sports groups to leaders in the local wood products industry.

Speaking to committee members during the hearing, Danes said that both the Obama and Trump administrations have both tried and failed in the past to resolve the Cottonwood case, and that his legislation provides a logical, durable solution.

“My bipartisan bill would put an end to a procedural loophole being exploited by fringe groups in the courts to prevent important forest restoration work so critical to what I like to call the 4 W’s: reducing wildfires, protecting wildlife, improving watersheds, and supporting Danes, adding that the 2015 decision “established a new, never-ending condition for consultation on plans that diverted the agency’s resources and time.”

The Cottonwood ruling from the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, named after the Bozeman-based Cottonwood Environmental Law Center that prevailed in the case, requires the USFS to review forest management plans and consult with the FWS when a new species is listed as endangered. Species law, when a new forest habitat is assigned, or when important “new information” about one of the listed species becomes available.

Cottonwood’s proponents say it’s entirely reasonable for land management agencies to demand consideration of new information about the harm being done to endangered species on public lands that are being transformed by drought and severe wildfires — and that “new information” is the new norm in today’s warming world.

According to a statement by Brett Hartle, Director of Governmental Affairs at the Center for Biodiversity, “Preventing our land management agencies from looking at the climate impacts destroying our public lands is shameful and will lead to species extinction.” “Just days after Senator Manchin repealed climate legislation in Congress, he doubled down on his role, trying to codify climate denial into law.”

However, support for Cottonwood’s heart has been widespread, and includes loggers and sports groups complaining about an appeals court decision that impeded management of forests on public lands.

“We need to return the decision-making process to ‘on-the-ground’ professionals who have the local knowledge and the scientific foundations to better implement good forest management,” according to Paul McKenzie, vice president and general manager of FH Stoltze Land and Lumber, based in Columbia Falls. “This bill will help mitigate the procedural and litigation grid lock-up of the past decade, which has consistently put the health and productivity of our public lands and neighboring communities at risk.”

Jordi Sanders, a resource manager for Pyramid Mountain Lumber based in Lake Scilly, echoed Mackenzie, saying the legislation benefits rural communities and their forest resources.

“Never-ending delays in trial and delays in proceedings are putting more communities at risk of wildfires and further diminishing forest health due to insect and disease outbreaks,” Sanders said in a prepared statement.

According to the Montana branch of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the legislation would fix the decision that “delayed and disrupted the ability to complete forest management activities including projects to enhance wildlife habitat and hunting opportunities.”

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