Management of the nation’s forests before, during and after wildfires was the topic for a U.S. House of Representatives field briefing of the subcommittee on the Interior, Energy and Environment in Hamilton Tuesday morning. Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte held the briefing to hear from three people – Ravalli County Commissioner Jeff Burrows, Director of Fire and Aviation for the Forest Service Shawna Legarza and former regional forester Richard Stem, who is now a management consultant. The briefing was open to public viewing at the Ravalli County Administration Center, but testimony was taken only from Burrows, Stem and Legarza.

Legarza said that the Forest Service is changing the term “fire seasons,” using instead “fire years,” noting the continual fire fights in different parts of the country almost every month. She said the trend seemed to start in the year 2000, which was a devastating year for Ravalli County. County Commissioner Jeff Burrows said the main concern in the Bitterroot Valley is public health, with all the forest fire smoke. Burrows said the Bitterroot National Forest and local officials have been working well together, but noted that there are roadblocks to such things as salvage projects following a fire.

Having retired from the Forest Service after 28 years, Consultant Richard Stem said an “out of the box” approach needs to happen to reduce wildfire potential. He mentioned cumbersome rules and lengthy litigations. He worries that there is a huge backlog of needed fuel reduction projects. All three mentioned they’d like to see more GNAs – Good Neighbor Agreements – between federal and local agencies. Gianforte said the testimony would be shared with the rest of the subcommittee in Washington, D.C.

A group of people in the meeting room voiced concerns that the general public was not being heard in Congressional hearings and that the county commissioners did not speak for all the community. Protest chanting outside the building was heard for a short time.

Former forest supervisor Richard Stem and Ravalli County Commissioner Jeff Burrows. (Steve Fullerton, Townsquare Media)