The government is us; we are the government, you and I. -Theodore Roosevelt

Hunters’ Voices Are Making a Difference on Forest Management

We’ve all seen the headlines about catastrophic wildfires made worse by dense vegetation that provides the ladder fuels for high intensity burns. Across millions of acres every year, fires are burning so hot that the trees are killed and even soils are sterilized. 

Landscape after the Lava Mountain Fire, Shoshone National Forest. Forest Service photo by Kristen Honig.

Fire is a natural process, and most trees, shrubs, and plants depend on periodic low intensity fires coming through to reinvigorate the system. Hunters know that a year or two out these might be the best places for big game hunting. But when fires burn too intensely, the entire system is damaged for decades reducing forage and hiding cover for wildlife and often leaving long term devastation to the region. 

The condition of our forests makes these high intensity fires more frequent. Decades of fire suppression coupled with a lack of management to thin trees is leading to dense forests with thick underbrush and trees tightly crowded together. In hotter and drier weather, all it takes is a lightning strike or human spark to start the flames; and once they take hold, those flames have plenty of fuel to run wild.

Columbia blacktail deer walking through a burned forest in Washington.

Hunters know first-hand that our National Forests desperately need thinning and management to reduce severe wildfire risk and to improve forage vegetation for big game species. Many of us—the Boone and Crockett Club included—work with Congress, states, and local collaborative groups to smooth the way for more and faster restoration projects. These actions may not stop future fires, but they can reduce their intensity and allow faster recovery. 

But since 2015, the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) hands have often been tied to conduct these management projects due to a misguided court case that has led to increased litigation effectively stalling many forest management efforts.

What is known as the “Cottonwood” case was a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to uphold an injunction sought by the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center in a case against the USFS about a forest management plan in critical habitat for the Canada lynx. The Ninth Circuit ruled that the USFS had to seek new approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act process of “consultation” for the Forest Plan, not just the project itself. Until consultation with FWS is complete, all projects under the entire Forest Plan are suspended. Based on that, subsequent lawsuits in Montana, Idaho, New Mexico, and Washington have led to court-ordered injunctions on hundreds of forest management and restoration projects on the 18 national forests. 

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President Obama’s Department of Justice objected to the ruling and appealed to the Supreme Court to seek reversal, stating that the Cottonwood holding had “no basis in the ESA or its implementing regulations” and would “impose substantial burdens on federal agencies.” The Obama Administration pointed out that forest plans did not constitute ongoing actions, thus FWS approval of projects made reinitiating consultation of the forest plan unnecessary. But the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

The Boone and Crockett Club jumped into the fray and helped convince Congress to fix it in 2018. But Congress passed only a partial and temporary fix, and the plaintiffs quickly found a way around it. Injunctions proliferated, forest projects stopped, and our forests became even more susceptible to catastrophic wildfires. 

In 2020, the federal agencies had had enough and began the rulemaking process to try to undo the Ninth Circuit interpretation. The proposed rule, which is fully supported by the U.S. Forest Service, interprets the ESA to make clear that reinitiating consultation should happen at the project level, where the potential impacts of federal action occur, not at the Plan level. 

Heavy construction vehicles thin the forest as a fire suppression technique in Lassen National Forest, California. Courtesy USDA Forest Service photo by Cecilio Ricardo.

Hunters, of course, supported the proposed rule and members of the Boone and Crockett Club recruited an amazing number of positive comments in January 2021. Over 300 members of the Club submitted comments to the Federal Register urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries to finalize the proposed rule, and of the 6,600 total comments submitted, well over 90% of them were supportive of the rule. Most of those comments came from hunters recruited by B&C, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Ruffed Grouse Society, and Safari Club International. 

Now there is movement on new legislation that would provide a permanent fix to Cottonwood. On July 21, 2022, the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee passed S. 2561 by a vote of 16-4, marking the first time a far-reaching forest management bill has passed the committee with such strong bipartisan support in years. The legislation, introduced by Montana Senator Steve Daines and co-sponsored by Idaho Senators Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, may offer the best chance to get a long-term fix that will allow forest management projects to get underway. Senator Jon Tester now also is a co-sponsor of the bill.

There is still a long path forward, but hunters’ voices are truly helping move this legislation toward the finish line in this Congress.

“The Boone and Crockett Club sincerely appreciates the bipartisan efforts of Senator Daines and Energy Committee Chairman Senator Manchin for their persistence in legislatively overturning a misguided court ruling that has allowed litigants to stop locally-led, science-based forest restoration and hunter access projects time and time again,” commented Boone and Crockett Club Chief Executive Officer Tony A. Schoonen. “We applaud Committee approval of this important legislation that will ensure the ability to manage our public lands to mitigate wildfire risk, improve habitat for wildlife, and enhance opportunities for outdoor recreation.”

Senator Daines has been leading the charge to pass a Cottonwood fix—repeatedly raising it at hearings and in meetings with Senators and senior Administration officials. After S. 2561 passed out of committee, he said, “We must manage our forests before they manage us. My forest management bill passing out of committee is a big win for Montana and the West, and I will keep working until it becomes law.”

There is still a long path forward, but hunters’ voices are truly helping move this legislation toward the finish line in this Congress. 

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"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt