Governor Bullock has been pretty outspoken in his support for strengthening Montana’s family-owned wood processors. Would you agree as to their importance to the success of the effort to restore Montana’s national forests?

Absolutely. The federal government can’t afford to pay for all the restoration work that needs to be done. Montana’s wood processing facilities have the technology and know-how to responsibly manage our national forests to benefit fish and wildlife habitat. They also create viable and sustainable products that support the economic well-being of our communities.”

Joel Webster, Director – Center for Western Lands
Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
Missoula, Montana

Joel Webster is the Center for Western Lands Director for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership [TRCP], based in Missoula, Montana. He has worked for the Partnership since 2007, and was heavily involved in the management of roadless areas in the West and in the creation of the 2012 National Forest System planning rule. Mr. Webster, a lifelong westerner, is a University of Montana graduate, and holds a Master’s Degree in Environmental Studies. In this interview, he answers questions concerning TRCP and its activities in the western United States.

Evergreen: Mr. Webster, we’re sorry to say we don’t know much about the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, save for the fact that its namesake is considered by many to be the greatest conservationist to ever occupy the White House.

Webster: President Roosevelt was a giant in the conservation world. We give him credit for making conservation a top tier American issue.

Evergreen: And we credit him with the formation of the nation’s first federal forest reserves, which became our national forests. One wonders what might have happened had he not been such a solid supporter of Gifford Pinchot’s ideas for forming the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, and giving the new agency management responsibility for most of the nation’s federally owned forests.

Webster: That would be true.

Evergreen: And now our country is again debating the fate of those forests, there being a good deal of concerning over their management and condition. How has your organization positioned itself in that debate?

Webster: The word “partnership” in our name represents a coalition of 46 conservation groups and over 100 Western sporting organizations helping to shape a single vision for natural resources policy. Our formal partners range from Trout Unlimited to the Boone and Crockett Club.

Evergreen: So you are more of a “hook and bullet” outfit than an organization that focuses strictly on land preservation?

Webster: That’s a fair statement. We certainly lean more in the direction of active forest and rangeland management than we do the leave-it-to-nature approach.

Evergreen: How many members in your organization?

Webster: About 50,000 nationally.

Evergreen: We count about 49 million anglers and 14 million hunters in the United States. Is that about right?

Webster: That’s probably close. The numbers tend to rise and fall a bit from one year to the next.

Evergreen: Either way, that’s a lot of political clout if it can be harnessed.

Webster: Yes, it is.

Evergreen: With so many groups advocating for habitat conservation, what niche has TRCP carved out for itself?

Webster: We work at the policy side at the national level, advocating for improvements to fish and wildlife habitat, quality access, and funding for programs that are important for sportsmen.

Evergreen: We’ll hazard a guess that the declining quality of fish and wildlife habitat in the West’s diseased and dying national forests is a matter of some concern for your organization and its partners.

Webster: We are very concerned about habitat quality issues and, among other things, the decline in active management on our national forests is having an impact on wildlife populations and hunter opportunities.

Evergreen: How do you wrap your arms around such a big issue, especially given the decade’s old conflict between those who favor active forest management and those who favor a leave-it-to-nature approach?

Webster: At the risk of oversimplification, we are looking for a new balance point between the excesses of the 1970s and 1980s and the lack of active management we see today that is having such a negative impact on the quality of fish and wildfire habitat.

Evergreen: When you say “excesses” we presume you mean the Forest Service’s timber harvesting program that Congress favored during the decades following World War II.

Webster: I think most people can agree that we overcut in the 1970s and 80s. Most people are also seeing that there is currently not enough active management on our public lands. Because of fire suppression combined with little active management, many forests are unnaturally dense and stressed, and important habitats are seeing a reduced carrying capacity to support wildlife. We need to find a balance and that means we need more active management than we are seeing today.

Evergreen: Removing dead, dying and offsite tree species and using prescribed fire to remove excess woody debris accumulations that are fueling big wildfires – the stuff many others have called to our attention.

Webster:  If we want an abundance of high quality fish and wildlife habitat, we have to do the things that are necessary to provide for it, so yes, you’re assessment is correct.

Evergreen: In your outreach, do you have any contact with the groups that seem to favor litigation to collaboration?

Webster: We focus on working with organizations who want to solve problems, not create them. Our interest is in moving forward collaboratively at the policy level.

Evergreen: Are you familiar with Governor Bullock’s Montana Forests in Focus initiative?

Webster: We are very supportive of the Governor’s push for collaborative forest restoration, but we haven’t been involved with the on-the-ground aspect of this work. My work is more at the regional level here in the west.

Evergreen: So you will have more involvement with him when he becomes chairman of the Western Governors Association this summer.

Webster: We will.

Evergreen: Governor Bullock has been pretty outspoken in his support for strengthening Montana’s family-owned wood processors. Would you agree as to their importance to the success of the effort to restore Montana’s national forests?

Webster: Absolutely. The federal government can’t afford to pay for all the restoration work that needs to be done. Montana’s wood processing facilities have the technology and know-how to responsibly manage our national forests to benefit fish and wildlife habitat. They also create viable and sustainable products that support the economic well-being of our communities.

Evergreen: Which brings us back to that elusive balance point you mentioned a moment ago.

Webster: It has been elusive, but it is also the point that we need to work towards. It isn’t one extreme or the other. I think we’re close. There are a lot of people who are waking up to the reality that changes in management are needed, and I believe that the best solution will be found if folks roll up their sleeves and work together.