“Our Montana Forests in Focus program is the culmination of a New Year’s promise I made to myself two years ago. We needed to increase the amount of forest restoration on the national forests in our state, and I wanted to make that happen. Our forests and our rural timber communities were suffering, and although Montanans were working together to address these issues, it wasn’t resulting in enough action on the ground.

When the 2014 Farm Bill came along a few months later, I saw a clear path forward to give those Montanans working so hard together a chance to see their efforts succeed. Later that year, I convened a diverse group of conservationists, forest industry representatives, anglers, county officials, and others and asked for advice. Approximately 60 stakeholders from all over the state participated, and their message was almost identical. They all wanted to put logs on trucks, improve forest health such as fisheries and wildlife habitat, reduce fire danger, and keep intact those places that should be left alone.

The result is the Montana Forests in Focus program that we have today. And it’s working!”

Steve Bullock
Governor of Montana

Forty-nine-year-old Steve Bullock is Montana’s 24th Governor. Elected in November of 2012, he is in the third year of his first four-year term. Bullock, a Democrat, was born in Missoula, but grew up in Helena, just a few blocks from the capitol. Before winning the governorship, he served one term as Montana’s Attorney General. A lawyer by training, he did his undergraduate work at Claremont McKenna College in California, and then graduated with honors from Columbia Law School in New York City.

In this interview, Governor Bullock responds to questions concerning his widely praised Montana Forests in Focus program and his upcoming term as chairman of the Western Governors’ Association. WGA has been very active in encouraging Congress to take additional steps to protect western federal forests from insects, diseases and wildfires that now pose a serious and additional risk to state, tribal and private forestlands across all 11 western states.

Evergreen: Governor, let’s cut to the chase. From what you know, how bad is the forest health problem in Montana’s national forests?

Bullock: It’s bad enough that you can see acres and acres of dead trees from Helena. Our fire seasons are longer, more intense, and more expensive. And as our forests decline, so do the wildlife and fish that depend on those forests for healthy habitat and clean, abundant water.

Evergreen: That’s pretty bad, but not much different from Idaho national forests.

Bullock: I’ve heard that from Governor Otter. But on a more hopeful note, I can also tell you that forest restoration projects undertaken under the auspices of the 2014 Farm Bill and our Forests in Focus program are helping to retain 1,000 logging and sawmilling jobs in our state, and helping those Montana families makes ends meet.

Evergreen: When you speak of the 2014 Farm Bill, you are speaking of areas of national forests affected by insects and disease that Congress allowed western governors to prioritize and designate in collaboration with forest stakeholder groups, including conservationists and forest industry representatives.

Bullock: That’s correct. The Farm Bill provided the Forest Service with new tools to accelerate forest restoration and accelerate projects that are developed through collaboration. Congress allowed governors to nominate national forest lands as priority landscapes, where those new tools could be put to work. A diverse group of Montanans made recommendations, and I nominated almost 5 million acres. The Secretary of Agriculture approved almost every acre.

Evergreen: You have, what, 17 million acres of national forest land in Montana?

Bullock: That’s about right. The federal government is by far our largest forest landowner, which is why we’re so concerned about the declining health of our federal lands. It is threatening our communities, natural resources, and way of life in Montana.

Evergreen: So things are not so good in what Montanans like to call “the last, best place.”

Bullock: Well don’t get me wrong, Montana is still the last best place! But things could certainly be better as we look to our national forests, which is why I’ve placed such a high priority on our Forests in Focus program. We see it as a proactive solution to forest and community health issues that are tied together.

Evergreen: It’s our recollection that collaboration is a requirement of key Farm Bill provisions?

Bullock: That’s true, and we’re trying to use those Farm Bill provisions to boost the success of our collaborative partners on the ground, to improve habitat, reduce fire danger, and put Montanans to work.

Evergreen: Collaboration seems to play to mixed reviews. How’s it working in Montana?

Bullock: Pretty well, we think. You’d always like to have more participation from the skeptics who seem to content to sit back and throw stones, but that will hopefully change in time.

Evergreen: We are aware of collaborative groups in Idaho that spent years developing the necessary trust relationships that allow them to work together on forest restoration projects.

Bullock: That’s the same here in Montana. We believe we’re sending the right signal with our Forests in Focus program, since one of the criteria we use for investment is the strength of the collaborative relationships among key stakeholders.

Evergreen: We’ve read through your program and find much to admire in it. What do you think separates it from other notable gubernatorial efforts around the western United States?

Bullock: Possibly the fact that the State of Montana stepped up with money. So far we’ve invested $1 million in state money in 14 Forest Service forest management projects, most of which are using Farm Bill authorities. These projects will help restore about 200,000 acres, improve recreation opportunities, and generate roughly 50 million board feet of commercial timber for our state’s sawmills. And last fall, I committed another $1 million to invest in federal forest restoration projects, under the condition that it leverages new money from the agency.  We’re currently identifying to which projects that funding will be directed.

Evergreen: I want to read a direct quote from a press release dated July 8, 2014, announcing your Forests in Focus initiative. You said, “We are at a crossroads with forest health, our mills and the future condition of our forests. The aftermath of a years-long mountain pine beetle epidemic, stalled projects on thousands of acres of national forests, and continued threats from wildfires provide a strong basis for increased focus on how we manage forests and how we ensure we have a vibrant wood products industry providing good-paying jobs for Montanans.” That’s strong stuff coming from a politician, wouldn’t you agree?

Bullock: Montana is a populist state. We aren’t always good at parsing their words but we are usually good at finding solutions most of us can support. Time is not on our side. We need to be engaged in an honest and very transparent dialogue about the condition of our national forests and what it will take to make things better and reduce the risks we face.

Evergreen: And so you seem to be on a more pragmatic road that has you measuring outcomes and investing in Forest Service projects that are economically viable and can produce results in terms of jobs in the woods and mills for Montanans, as well as other benefits such as improved water quality, and wildlife and fisheries habitats.

Bullock: We’re also investing in projects on state, private and tribal forest lands, but yes, this is mostly about helping the Forest Service get more work done faster, and on more acres.

Evergreen: And you find nothing politically incorrect in saying out loud that Montana’s forest products industry needs some help.

Bullock: I certainly don’t. I think we benefit from a strong forest products industry. A lot of our wood processing infrastructure is family-owned by Montanans who pay taxes and employ their fellow Montanans. Our mill capacity is shrinking, which is challenging for our rural timber communities. We’re also in danger of losing our mill infrastructure and more mill capacity. Yet this is the very capacity we need to improve forest health on our public lands, reduce wildfire risk, and restore wildlife and fisheries habitats.

Evergreen: We could not help but notice that your administration has also committed to hiring two liaisons, to help coordinate activity between the Forest Service, local government, Montana residents, and your Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Bullock: We’ve hired a liaison to work directly with the USFS on this effort, and recently hired a local government forest advisor to help city and county officials effectively engage on federal forest management issues.  And we are investing state tax dollars in several collaborative projects. Coordination is key to making sure that all of the players are on the same page, so we funded these positions to help insure that the state gets a return on its investment.

Evergreen: How on earth did all of this get started at a time when there is so much national level disagreement over how or if western national forests should even be managed, much less produce measurable outcomes?

Bullock: Our Montana Forests in Focus program is the culmination of a New Year’s promise I made to myself two years ago. We needed to increase the amount of forest restoration on the national forests in our state, and I wanted to make that happen. Our forests and our rural timber communities were suffering, and although Montanans were working together to address these issues, it wasn’t resulting in enough action on the ground.

When the 2014 Farm Bill came along a few months later, I saw a clear path forward to give those Montanans working so hard together a chance to see their efforts succeed. Later that year, I convened a diverse group of conservationists, forest industry representatives, anglers, county officials, and others and asked for advice. Approximately 60 stakeholders from all over the state participated, and their message was almost identical. They all wanted to put logs on trucks, improve forest health such as fisheries and wildlife habitat, reduce fire danger, and keep intact those places that should be left alone.

The result is the Montana Forests in Focus program that we have today. And it’s working!

Evergreen: Yet the serial litigators remain the 5,000 pound elephants in the room that no one wants to talk about. A great deal of forest restoration projects in Montana are currently tied up in federal court cases filed by groups who don’t support the kind of forest restoration work you advocate, and refuse to participate in collaboratives. What’s the solution?

Bullock: I’m a lawyer by training. While I know the limits of going to court, I also respect the rights of citizens to do so, especially when they’re challenging their government.  I believe the new Farm Bill authorities that Congress enacted will resolve some of the issues that exist from too much litigation. Sound science and transparency are the keys. People need to know there is no back room dealing. This mess wasn’t created overnight, and I would be reluctant to expect that the fix is simple. Perhaps it’s time to look at alternative methods of dispute resolution, such as arbitration.

Evergreen: That’s the word we get from all of the collaboratives we’ve interviewed over the last eight months. And there is a strong sense that the hundreds of volunteer hours stakeholders are devoting to their collaborative projects deserve some measure of protection from Congress.

Bullock: I’ve heard the same story from our Montana collaboratives. Drawing the line between public access to the courts and giving folks the signal that working together is encouraged and rewarded is a delicate balance.

Evergreen: You assume the chairmanship of the Western Governors’ Association in July. We had a peek at WGA’s 2016 national forest and rangeland policy statement, in which we assume you played a significant role. Are we correct?

Bullock: Working with Governor Otter I put the first draft of that resolution forward, and through the WGA process many other Governors offered a lot of very good input. So as much as I like the resolution it’s really not Steve’s grand plan for saving the West. WGA has an increasing amount of political horsepower, in part because we are a bi-partisan group but also because Congress has seen fit to give Governors a role via the Farm Bill. State governments have trust responsibilities of their own involving wildlife, water, forest resources and public health and safety. Our seat at the table is secure.

Evergreen: What do you see as the key issues during your year as WGA chairman?

Bullock: At WGA there have also been serious discussions regarding forest management and the need for reform, and the need to find out where we, as westerners, can stand together on this issue. As Governors, we have our own forestry programs and we are acutely aware of the challenges on the ground. I want to take up the issues of federal forest management reform and hold discussions around the West. I believe we should start with the Farm Bill authorities to see how those substantial changes in agency authority are playing out, with an eye toward bringing a bipartisan set of reforms forward.

Evergreen: Let’s start with fire borrowing. How do we fix it?

Bullock: The purpose of forest restoration is to restore sustainability in ailing ecosystems before they burn, so why is the Forest Service forced to borrow money and redirect their land management budget to pay its firefighting costs? It makes no sense. We don’t do this in Montana and I can’t fathom a reason why Congress allows it. We are hurting our national forests and people who depend on them for their way of life.

Evergreen: And how do we replace the county share of harvest receipts lost as the federal timber sale program has all but disappeared?

Bullock: We can’t have our counties and schools begging the federal government for money every year. The federal government does not pay property taxes on the acres it owns in the West, and in some counties federal landownership comprises over 80 percent of the entire county. WGA has been clear that like any landowner, the federal government needs to pay its fair share to states and counties for public goods and services.

Evergreen: Which brings us back to state efforts to help the Forest Service get more work done on the ground in at risk national forests.

Bullock: We intend to do our part in Montana, and we are willing to do more once we see success on the ground. As WGA Chair, I intend to highlight our work in Montana and learn from my western colleagues. I believe we can build a strong bipartisan foundation among the western Governors to support change.