“Our biggest challenge is wildfire”

“Our biggest challenge is wildfire”

Editor’s Note: Amanda Kaster is the Director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation [DNRC]. She was appointed by newly elected Montana Governor, Greg Gianforte, in December 2020. She brings a decade of experience working in energy and natural resource development, most recently as Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Land and Minerals Management with the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Kaster also served as the Acting Chief of staff and Senior Advisor at Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. Previously, she worked for former Montana Congressman, Ryan Zinke, the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC and former Maine Senator, Olympia Snowe.

In this Evergreen interview, she summarizes her first year as DNRC Director and offers some suggestions for more constructively addressing Montana’s forest health/wildfire pandemic.

Evergreen: Amanda, you just wrapped up your first year as Director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. What’s been your biggest challenge so far?

Kaster: Certainly, the 2021 wildfire year. It was the fifth driest in the 127-year history of record keeping in Montana, which meant we saw substantial activity on the land. We battled more than 2,600 fires covering over 945,000 acres. By law, the DNRC is required to conduct aggressive initial attack on fire. We were able to catch 96 percent of these fires while they were still small, but we still spent about $47.5 million from the state’s $101 million wildfire suppression fund. Right now, we’re in the process of understanding how this season went for us and assessing opportunities to improve and enhance our efforts in the future.

Evergreen: Would we be correct in assuming that most of your wildfires started on federal lands?

Kaster: That’s correct. Most of the wildfires did start on federal lands in 2021, but on mixed ownership in terms of which agencies were responsible for response – USFS, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the National Park Service. Many starts were also on lands under county authority. See more information here.

Evergreen: Would we also be correct in assuming that you saw our recent Counties on Fire: Lincoln County, Montana report?

Kaster: Yes, I did.

Evergreen: Any thoughts?

Kaster: The forest health and wildfire-related problems that you explained are impacting the health, safety, and well-being of everyone who lives in or visits our state. Lincoln County is simply a microcosm of a much larger problem. We are all in harm’s way. No one is immune.

Evergreen: We’ll revisit this question in a moment, but first tell us about MDNRC. What exactly do you do as Director?

Kaster: Sure. DNRC was formed in 1971 by combining earlier state commissions, councils and boards that were responsible for management and conservation of state-owned natural resources including forests, water, minerals, coal, oil, and natural gas. The transition was part of the Montana legislature’s Executive Reorganization Act, which gave the late governor, Forrest Anderson, the legal authority to reorganize state government.

Evergreen: So, 50 years hence, how is DNRC organized?

Kaster: We are organized into six divisions, focused on the many different natural resource programs and services that DNRC provides Montanans. My office provides policy, managerial and administrative support services for the other five: oil and gas conservation, conservation and natural resource development, water resources, forestry (which includes fire) and state trust lands owned by the citizens of Montana.

We also provide administrative services to nine boards, commissions and advisory committees including land, oil and gas, water well contractors, drought advisory, the Flathead Basin Commission, the Upper Columbia Conservation Commission, the Montana Grass Conservation Commission, the Rangeland Resources Committee, the Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, the Resource Conservation Advisory Council, and the Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team.

Evergreen: Wow! You’re busy.

Kaster: We are for sure, but we have a great staff and some very dedicated volunteers who make my job a real pleasure.

Evergreen: How many work for you?

Kaster: Measured in Full Time Equivalencies [FTE], roughly 560 people. Our annual budget is about $76 million. Most of it comes from state timber sales, oil, gas and coal leases and fire protection taxes. We also get some federal funding through programs like the US Forest Service’s Good Neighbor Authority [GNA] program. It pays us for the help we provide on designated GNA projects.

Evergreen: Let’s circle back to Montana’s wildfire pandemic. Governor Gianforte has said publicly that he wants a four-fold increase in thinning and stand tending work in Montana’s forests. Are we correct in assuming the Governor finds a solid basis for this increase in the Shared Stewardship agreement signed in April 2019 by John Tubbs, who was then DNRC Director, State Forester, Sonya Germann and Forest Service Region 1 Forester, Leanne Marten?

Kaster: The Governor and I are immensely supportive of shared stewardship efforts to support actively managing our forests, and he has stated that he wants a two-fold increase in acres treated by the state this year. The work that was done to establish the Montana Forest Action Advisory Council and, subsequently, the Montana Forest Action Plan, has allowed the state to identify high risk forestlands needing treatment regardless of ownership jurisdiction and places us in a position to work across stakeholders and partners to treat more acres.

Evergreen: Are we correct in assuming that this agreement pledges the Forest Service, Montana DNRC, interested counties and the Forest Action Plan Advisory Council to a joint effort to reduce the wildfire risk in Montana forests without regard to who owns the land?

Kaster: That’s right. Wildfires don’t respect property lines. Shared Stewardship brings everyone to the table who wants to be there. When the Action Plan Advisory Council was formed it drew its membership from a wide variety of conservation groups, county and municipal governments, various state and federal agencies, Native Americans, academia, forest collaboratives, forest landowners, farming, ranching, logging, lumber manufacturing, and outdoor recreation including hunting, fishing, skiing, and wilderness advocates.

Evergreen: Where the rubber meets the road, what cross-boundary authorities allow the Stewardship partners to get work done on-the-ground? And when say “work” we are referring to the same thinning and stand tending work Governor Gianforte sees as a priority for his Administration.

Kaster: Federal funding is available under several congressional authorities including but not limited to the Joint Chief’s program, Good Neighbor, the Collaborative Forest Restoration Act, Stewardship Contracting, the Tribal Forest Protection Act, Hazardous Fuels Reduction, Landscape Scale Restoration, Forest Stewardship, Forest Health Protection and Wildland Urban Interface projects.

Evergreen: And now the tsunami of federal dollars that are included in the Biden Administration’s infrastructure legislation.

Kaster: Potentially, though I don’t think at this time we have a sense as to how the line-item funding with match up with our ongoing efforts, or the new Council of Environmental Regulations that guide what cross-boundary jurisdiction will mean on federal lands.

Evergreen: What more specific role do you see MDNRC playing in Governor Gianforte’s quest to reduce the risk of forest/rangeland wildfire risk?

Kaster: Recognizing the forest health crisis we have in Montana, DNRC aims to be a leader, and a strong and constructive partner in our relationships with our federal partners such as the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, as well as our counties in which national forests and rangelands are present, and of course, our private forestland owners. It requires an all hands, all lands approach to meaningfully reduce fire risk.

Eighty-five percent of all forestlands in Montana – some 17 million acres - is federally owned. There is no aspect of life in Montana, and no landowner, large or small, public, or private, that is not impacted – economically, environmentally, socially, and culturally – by what happens on our federal lands.

Evergreen: Which brings us back to the 5,000-pound elephant standing in the room that Governor Gianforte sees – the fact that forest mortality exceeds growth by a wide margin in six of Montana’s seven national forests. And it is this mortality that is fueling the state’s wildfire crisis.

Kaster: We have an all-hands-on-deck problem here that requires that all of us at the state, county, local, and federal level work in close concert. Hence, the Montana Forest Action Plan and other forest management tools that we’ve been discussing.

Evergreen: We have read your Forest Action Plan in detail and were very pleased to see that your forest growth and mortality data came from the Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis [FIA] program. Your interactive maps allow anyone with an interest to gauge the risk on their own land or within a particular county.

Kaster: Our goal is to provide the citizens of Montana with transparent and concise information they can use to assess their own levels of risk. I thought you used FIA’s data sets very well in your Lincoln County booklet.

Evergreen: We have been using FIA survey data in our educational outreach for more than 25 years and consider it to be the gold standard for anyone wanting to learn more about what’s happening on public and private forests in the U.S. Not many know this, but the Forest Service began collecting survey plot data in the 1930s, though the first periodic surveys date back more than a century.

Kaster: It’s amazing how much well-documented forestry information you can find if you are willing to move beyond the rhetoric. The blame game isn’t helping. Wildfires are destroying the Treasure State’s treasured natural resources.

Evergreen: Where from here Amanda? What do you hope to accomplish in your second year?

Kaster: At every level of government, we need to work more proactively with our stakeholders to tackle tough issues. Top on my list is treating more forested acres – it’s the issue I hear from our stakeholders the most. We have an opportunity to become much better out-of-the-box thinkers. I believe we can do a great deal more work on the land than we’ve done in the recent past while complying with applicable state and federal laws and regulations.

The active forest management work that Governor Gianforte strongly supports has tangible benefits, such as reducing the risks associated with insects, diseases, mortality, and wildfire in our forests. I also acknowledge it will require us to message, explain, and re-explain the benefits of this essential work. When you start chainsaws in the woods, people who have moved here for the beauty and solitude Montana offers are going to ask us lots of questions. We need to be proactive in providing forestry and conservation information, supported by science that to emphasize why this work is critical to restoring the health of our forests.

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