Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Gianforte tours Creston fire mitigation site

by KATE HESTON, Daily Interlake
| June 5, 2024 12:00 AM

Gov. Greg Gianforte emphasized the state’s commitment to aggressively preventing wildfires while visiting a fire mitigations site in the Flathead Valley.

As part of his 56 county tour, Gianforte stopped at a forest restoration project east of Creston on May 30, meeting with forestry officials with the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. 

“I think we have a forest health crisis in the state,” Gianforte said. “Every summer Montana catches on fire. And it’s a concern to many Montanans … we want to get back to a place where we have healthy forests.”

The tract of land — which will see nearly 130 acres of forest restoration work this summer — is currently prone to wildfires, state officials said. Overgrown with trees, many of which are dead, the area is adjacent to homes and structures, making the project a priority ahead of fire season. 

“This stuff right now is overstocked and has little to no commercial value,” said Greg Poncin, area manager for the Northwestern Land Office at the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

The thinning and fuels mitigation project was made possible in part by House Bill 883, which Gianforte signed into law in May 2023. Sponsored by Rep. Llew Jones, a Republican from Conrad, the legislation allocated $60 million over biennium to the state for fire suppression, mitigation and restoration work in an effort to have resources available without having to wait for federal approval or funds. 

“We haven’t had the resources to really be good stewards and that’s what 883 is attempting to address,” Gianforte said. 

The parcel of land, which includes both pre-commercial thinning units and restoration units, is also school trust land. But it is failing to generate dollars because of its lack of commercial value. By restoring and thinning the forest, healthier trees will be able to grow and, ideally, commercial value will increase and better fund education efforts in the state, officials said. 

The project is also essential owing to the close proximity of homes and structures.

“By doing this, we’re lowering the potential for a large fire in here,” said Pete Seigmund, a forest management supervisor at the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. 

By next spring, officials at the state agency hope to plant favorable trees to encourage a healthy growth process. 

“The wildland urban interface is specifically a target … because we are more concerned about forest health next to structures and we don’t want to put firefighters at risk either,” Gianforte said. 

The project is the first of its kind to use funds set aside in HB 883 in the valley, and forest officials said they look forward to using available dollars for future projects to alleviate the effects and risks of the fire season.