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Flyovers Offer Governors Landscape-Level Views Of Their Management Decisions

Montana's Flathead Valley from above.
Montana's Flathead Valley from above.

From above, the northern Flathead Valley is a patchwork of yellow fields of canola, green tracts of grains and wandering curves of cerulean rivers. Heavily forested mountains erupt from the valley floor, some of them still scared by clear cut logging from decades ago.

"This area obviously has got multi-uses," says Bruce Gordon, a pilot for EcoFlight, a nonprofit based in Colorado that uses flyovers in small aircraft to advocate for protecting wildlands.

He’s in Whitefish this week to fly western governors over northwest Montana, to give them a visual as they talk this week about land management.

"It's got great resources in logging ... and, of course, it's a world class recreational area. We'll get a chance to look at Glacier briefly," Gordon tells the passengers.

They’re all in town for the annual Western Governors’ Association meeting in Whitefish. On Tuesday, the 10 governors held a roundtable discussion with representatives from federal agencies, industry and nonprofits about their National Forest and Rangeland Management Initiative, which looks at successful collaboration projects and makes recommendations for what they can do to make western landscapes healthier and more profitable.

Montana’s Democratic Governor Steve Bullock spearheaded the initiative over the past year, and chaired the discussion.

EcoFlight uses a Cessna to advocate for wildlands

"I really appreciate the support of WGA in putting this together, because responsibly both managing our western forests and rangelands, it's a vexing concern for anyone who loves the West, and it's so important we get this right," Bullock said.

The Initiative looks at existing management programs at the state and federal level that use collaboration to get around funding challenges, especially for wildland fire mitigation and invasive weeds management.

Leonard Jordan, Associate Chief for Conservation for the Natural Resource Conservation Service, said this type of teamwork is necessary for agencies to get work done. He talked about the power in partnerships and pointed at the Sage Grouse Initiative, which is credited with keeping the bird off the Endangered Species List, as an example of successful collaboration.

"No one state, no one federal agency or organization has enough resources or skills to address this effort," Jordan said. "It will require and need a collaboration and a collective action."

The initiative report, released Tuesday morning, ran several case studies, including some on projects done under the Good Neighbor Authority written into the 2014 Farm Bill, which allows states to carry out watershed restoration and forest management projects on National Forest lands. These types of projects were heralded by the panel as success stories for both promoting forest health and creating timber jobs.

Marc Brinkmeyer is chairman of the Idaho Forest Group. He said wood is emerging as the number one construction product of the century, but added companies need the WGA’s leadership to meet the demand.

"We need leadership. We need guidance, but most of all we need the governors' loud voice to be heard, together with your constituents in Washington D.C. for your state, to be able to have an effective program forward," Brinkmeyer said.

Brinkmeyer added he would like to see an agenda and for the governors to be held accountable.

The report outlines steps states, federal agencies and partners can take under existing regulations, like using state funds for federal projects, helping local governments create fire-adapted communities and using new technology to make projects more transparent. It also lays out the governors’ legislative recommendations to Congress, including suggestions for reforming federal fire management funding, Farm Bill modifications, and updating the framework and use of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

While none of these recommendations are binding, Montana Governor Steve Bullock urged his fellow governors not to let their work fall to the wayside.

"There's a lot in this report. What we can never allow, though, is the efforts of this just to be a report that sits on a table, or on a shelf, without actually saying where can we as policy makers and leaders take the next steps," Bullock said.

Tom Tidwell is chief of the U.S. Forest Service. He stressed the necessity of collaboration and urged the governors to leverage their titles when trying to put partnerships together.

"Do not ever underestimate the power of your positions and what it will do, especially if there's a group that wants to walk away from the table," Tidwell said. "A call from you, in my experience, it brings them back so we can continue to do our work."

As the National Forest and Rangeland Management Initiative heads into its second year, the governors will focus on implementing the recommendations it outlines.

You can read the full report here.

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