Kootenai Forest set to receive new federal funding

| August 11, 2020 8:29 AM

U.S. Forest Service officials in the Lincoln County area are planning how best to use an infusion of federal funds from a newly enacted conservation law.

The Great American Outdoors Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump on Aug. 4, will earmark nearly $3 billion annually to conservation efforts, outdoor recreation and the maintenance of national parks and public lands. The act permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million per year and will set aside up to $1.9 billion annually for maintenance projects on federal lands for the next five years.

During an Aug. 5 meeting, Chad Benson, Kootenai National Forest supervisor, gave county commissioners a primer on what the act will mean locally.

“We can see anywhere from one to three million for our area and so that’s pretty exciting,” Benson said, giving a ballpark figure.

The U.S. Forest Service, Northern Region, which includes the Kootenai National Forest, is set to receive approximately $20 million from the act this year, according to Benson. 60 percent of the funds will be held for what are deemed large-scale national projects that would benefit the area while the remaining 40 percent will be sent directly to the region to pay for local initiatives.

Benson anticipates that a bit less than half of the amount the region receives directly will be spent on infrastructure, like roads. The bulk of the dollars will go toward adding more jobs and improving the quality of campgrounds and recreation facilities.

“You guys know we’re talking billions of dollars in backlog,” Benson told the commissioners. “It’s not the panacea of shiny red bow — ‘look we’re done’ — but we will move the needle comparable to what we’ve been doing.”

Some of the funds may be used to bring in Montana Conservation Corps, Youth Conservation Corps or Job Corps crews to help with trail maintenance.

The region is developing a concrete plan for how they intend to spend their first year’s worth of funding from the outdoors act. Within the next 90 days, according to Benson, the proposal will be sent to Washington, D.C., for approval.

During the Aug. 5 meeting, Benson also reported to commissioners that the service anticipates harvesting around 46 million board feet from the Kootenai Forest this year.

“We struggled a little this year due to the access amendment lawsuit stuff around grizzly bear and road and gate management,” Benson said.

In October 2019, a federal court judge ruled that the potential impacts to grizzlies from ineffective road closures related to a logging project in the Kootenai Forest had not been fully explored. A Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement would be required before the project could progress.

“At the end of the day, … us being better at gate and access management is at the forefront of expectations,” Benson told commissioners on Aug. 5. “It’s disheartening because … at the same time we’re getting pinched by lawsuits around access, people are wanting more freedoms and … more projects and more timber.”

Benson anticipates that the Forest Service will increase its harvest to 70 million board feet next year and 80 million by 2022.