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Montana Wildfires Reignite Logging Debate

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Montana has had one of the worst wildfire seasons in decades. It's ended in large part because of rain and early snows. Before that, two firefighters died on the job. The state spent nearly $380,000,000 trying to suppress the fires. Still going strong is a debate over logging and the role it should play in preventing fires. Montana Public Radio's Eric Whitney reports.

ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: Montanans got used to the sound of firefighting air tankers passing overhead this summer, going to drop load after load of water and retardant on dozens of fires.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Secretary Zinke and Secretary Perdue, thank you for being here. This is...

WHITNEY: President Trump's secretaries of Agriculture and Interior visited a scene like that in August at the invitation of the Republicans in Montana's congressional delegation. In a valley choked with thick smoke from several area forest fires, Congressman Greg Gianforte told them that things wouldn't be this bad if federal land managers had freer rein to log forests and remove trees from federal land.

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GREG GIANFORTE: We're tied up in knots through extensive and ridiculous permitting processes and frivolous lawsuits from environmental extremists.

WHITNEY: Gianforte said those, quote, "extremists" were directly to blame for a big fire burning nearby.

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GIANFORTE: There was a project there that the Forest Service worked together with the community and the county commissioners called the Stonewall Project. And it took eight years to get that forest management project approved only to have a single judge overturn it. And now that forest is burning.

WHITNEY: The project to reduce fire danger by cutting down and removing trees from a couple of thousand acres of national forest land was put on hold by a judge in May in response to a lawsuit from a pair of environmental groups. They said it would harm habitat for endangered grizzly bears and lynx. Two months later, lightning started a fire that would eventually burn 18,000 acres, including part of the Stonewall project area. But not everyone sees the cause and effect Congressman Gianforte does.

ANDREW LARSON: The environmentalists are not responsible for that fire burning. And had the Stonewall Project advanced, it's very likely that the site would be burning today.

WHITNEY: Andrew Larson is a professor of forest ecology at the University of Montana. He and others in his department say that in a drought year like this one in Montana, even if the trees had been removed, the vegetation left behind still would have burned. Ecologists say it's well-established that a warming climate means fire seasons are getting longer and more intense in the American West, so stopping wildfires is an unrealistic goal.

LARSON: What we might be able to achieve is areas that don't burn with as high a severity. We might also have safer working environments for fire managers.

WHITNEY: That sounds like a good goal to the man in charge of the U.S. Forest Service, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

He's not ready to tie climate change to human activity. But he says...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SONNY PERDUE: There obviously is climate change, temperature change and weather change. And we have to deal with that. We have to adapt to it. And we have to manage the forest getting ahead of that.

WHITNEY: Which takes us back to conservative lawmakers' frustration with lawsuits that stop timber sales. Green groups say the sales are only being stopped if they violate environmental laws. Members of Congress from western states have long pitched legislation to make logging public lands easier. With the House, Senate and White House all in Republican hands, now may be their best opportunity to do so in years. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in Missoula, Mont.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the introduction to this story, we say Montana spent nearly $380 million fighting wildfires. The state actually spent $50 million; the balance came from other sources.]

(SOUNDBITE OF SEA WOLF SONG, "YOU'RE A WOLF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 21, 2017 at 10:00 PM MDT
In the introduction to this story, we say Montana spent nearly $380 million fighting wildfires. The state actually spent about $50 million; the balance came from other sources.
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