Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck testified around the end of January before a joint subcommittee of the Montana State Legislature on transportation and natural resources, urging them to provide funding in support of the Good Neighbor Authority.
Peck said that he found the legislators were already in support of the program, which would help to keep money from timber sales on federal land within the state.
Since 2014, the Good Neighbor Authority program has allowed cooperative agreements between the federal government and states, permitting state governments to perform forest management and watershed restoration on federal lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
The federal program does have some restrictions, such as the exclusion of projects in wilderness areas, wilderness study areas or other lands where removal of vegetation is prohibited.
“It grants the Forest Service the authority to, essentially subcontract to a state forestry department to do work on their behalf,” Peck said.
Peck said that he went to Helena to tell the representatives and senators that more production is needed on Montana forests, and that “the Good Neighbor Authority is a really good tool to help facilitate that,” he said.
But one of the biggest benefits of the program is that most of the money stays in Montana, Peck explained.
Under a normal timber sale on federal land, whatever money is made in profit after paying for overhead goes back to Washington D.C., he said. The only way that money can then return to the forests where it was made is through whatever budgets are allotted to national forests such as the Kootenai National Forest.
While the Forest Service still takes a portion of the timber sale to cover its costs — the environmental analysis for a proposed project is still performed to federal standards — anything that is left over goes to the state, he said. Once the state recuperates its costs from the bidding process and sale, the remaining profit can then be used for projects within the state, including things such as improving recreation opportunities.
“It’s a win-win,” Peck said.
Especially for developing recreation opportunities by doing things such as building or even just maintaining trails, having that money directed back to where it came from is a big opportunity, Peck said. “Because the Forest Service, their recreation budgets have been cut severely as well.”
Additionally, that opportunity has now also been extended to county and tribal governments, Peck said.
So, if Lincoln County were to work with the Forest Service on a project, the initial costs could be covered by grant money. But, the money left over after the project is completed could then go into a fund at the county level that could be used for future projects.
That could even be something such as improving recreation opportunities here in the county.
“It has to be on Forest Service land,” he said. “But just like with — the receipts that come off those timber sales aren’t just for timber. That money will be used for restoration projects, streamside restoration projects — it can be used for a number of things, not just timber.”
Peck said that ultimately it comes back to the money made from Lincoln County’s forests benefiting those same lands the timber comes from.
“It’s just a way to leverage a lot more resources and keep them locally,” he said.
In order for Montana to take advantage of the program, there has to be some money on the table to start.
Peck said that the proposal is to add the equivalent of 6.5 full time jobs at the state level — as well as making two existing temporary state full time positions permanent — in order to allow the state to have the manpower to participate in the program.
Those positions would be set up purely to handle the state’s side of timber sales related to the Good Neighbor Authority.
Montana already has a 10-year plan with the federal government related the the Good Neighbor Authority program, he said. Montana has already at least started three Good Neighbor Authority sales with a projected combined income of $900,000.
Peck said that he went to Helena to push for the expansion of the existing number of positions, as well as for the state government to invest seed money into the program to get new management projects going.
“The Forest Service put in a pretty significant amount of seed money. I don’t know how much. but industry’s donated a lot of money. So, now the state’s stepping up and doing their part too,” Peck said.
Lincoln County also made a recent contribution of $10,000 in seed money toward the Good Neighbor Authority program at the state level.
The combined seed money would get the program running. But once it is going, the program would become self-funded, he said.
Peck said that the process would work similar to the trust land managed by the state that helps to fund Montana’s schools.
“It’s one of the actual government-based programs that I think will work. It’s working in Idaho,” Peck said.
As for counties taking advantage of the program, thay could either participate as subcontractors to the state or a county could enter into agreements directly with the Forest Service.
But, regardless how it is done, the authority is granted by the federal government, he said.