By Matt Volz
HELENA, MONT.: The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Thursday it will spend $30 million this year on forest restoration projects in 12 states to reduce the threat of wildfires, protect water quality and improve wildlife habitat for at-risk species.
Those first 13 projects will be the start of a multiyear initiative to improve the health of forests and watersheds on public and private lands, Agriculture Undersecretary Robert Bonnie said.
With longer fire seasons in recent years burning more areas, and beetle outbreaks devastating more than 40 million acres of forests in the West, the pace and scale of restoration need to be increased, he said.
The work must extend to helping private landowners thin their trees, remove brush, protect habitat and improve watersheds along their properties, Bonnie said.
“If we only worked on our national forests, it wouldn’t be enough to address this problem,” he said.
Money to work with private landowners will come from the farm bill Congress passed this week, and the Forest Service will use its own funds to work on adjacent public lands.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies, a nonprofit that has filed several lawsuits to block logging projects in national forests in the Northern Rockies, was skeptical about the plan.
Logging won’t help reduce wildfire risks or protect watersheds because areas thinned of trees allow the wind to blow through more easily, which could spread flames more quickly, said Mike Garrity, the group’s executive director.
The money would be better used by helping landowners in wildland-urban interface areas remove trees and other fuels around their homes, he said.
Helena National Forest Supervisor Bill Avey said infrastructure protection is the first priority.
Officials don’t plan to thin or log every acre, but will identify areas with the highest probability of fire moving through to get rid of the heavy fuels, he said.
One of the first projects will be an $865,000 restoration of the watershed that provides most of the drinking water for Montana’s capital city of Helena.
City officials have feared a wildfire could spread quickly through the surrounding forest, which is littered with dead trees from a mountain pine beetle infestation.