Guest Opinion: Lincoln County is the Kootenai Forest

by Jerry Okonski, Libby, Montana

December 3, 2014

The natural setting of Lincoln County in Northwest Montana has blessed us with abundant natural resources, especially forests, but this has proven to be a curse over the last 25 years. The Treasury of our County is in dire straits because the federal government abdicated its role as a responsible citizen. Our county is not alone: this politically generated dilemma plagues many forested rural counties today.

To understand the origin of the problem, we must take a trip to the past, 106 years ago. In 1908, the federal government enacted the 25% Fund Act. It was the federal government’s recognition – essentially a self-imposed tax – that it, like any property owner, needed to be a responsible “citizen” with its own land holdings. It was designed with the rural western counties in mind, where federal lands are disproportionately large relative to private holdings. So the Act effectively returned 25% of revenue generated on the declared federal land holdings, through the states, and back to county coffers. Counties then used these funds to pay for roads, schools and other county government services.

Throughout the 20th century, the Act was especially significant for Lincoln County. Federal government land holdings comprise 78% of the county’s land, and our forest growth is the most productive in Montana. These two factors meant that Lincoln County received a large proportion of the 25% funds that were remitted back to the forested counties within Montana.

But starting in the early 1990s, ill-advised political decisions in Washington D.C. led to a severe decline in revenue generated from federal lands, namely in the form of irrational and drastic reductions in the federal timber harvest.

In 2000 Congress attempted to politically bandage this gaping fiscal wound with the Secure Rural Schools and Community Determination Act. It provided funding to counties to make up the deficit created because of lack of revenue generated by the federal lands. Since the revenue producing capacity of these counties was capriciously hindered various short term extensions of the Act were necessary.

Dependency upon the federal handout continued without providing any long term, federal imprimatur for creating ‘good paying jobs’. Rather, resource dependent counties were told en mass to attract outside business, like high tech companies, or to wait for the recreation-user boom that would then grow these rural economies. What has grown in the case of Lincoln County is Montana’s highest unemployment rate, unreasonably high poverty rate, binge drinking, suicide, and increased mental health problems. 

Having been solvent in the past, Lincoln County is left with an increasingly large budget deficit. The effects of the financial deficit will fall hardest on those who are least able to afford increased taxes, especially those on fixed incomes.

Along with the severe financial shortfalls, residents of the county face the certainty of atypical, catastrophic wildfires. The Kootenai Forest accumulates 300 million board feet of dead wood annually.  The federal acreages being treated are far below what is necessary for proper fuels reduction and

maintenance of forest health. This negligent build-up of fuels constitutes a threat which multiplies year on year.

Wildfire plays an important role in the health of an ecosystem. Leading fire experts show that we are at risk of unnaturally hot, fast spreading wildfire, with flame heights of 400-500 feet, and burning embers thrown miles ahead of the fire. This will threaten human lives, property and livelihoods. It is also an ecological catastrophe in the making, because it will sterilize the soil, aid in large scale erosion (as the Sundance Fire of 1967 did to the Pack River in Idaho) and kill fish and wildlife (also with the Sundance Fire). This too is the result of a purely political decision by the federal government to engage in “handsoff” management of the federal lands. Rather, it is politically palatable to waste public monies and resource assets than to rationally manage and steward our water, wildlife and forest resources.

What is clear is that the federal government has abdicated its role as a responsible citizen. It expects rural western counties to be active custodians of the national forest lands, without compensation for so doing. It expects us to accept our fate as residents of a heavily forested county, even though we are living amidst a tinderbox. It expects us to accept the huge waste of tax monies as well as the opportunity cost for not managing the valuable timber resource.

We as a County cannot stand by idly and watch the ‘put-upon’ socio-economic deterioration of Lincoln County. The Kootenai Forest is Lincoln County. The leaders and citizens of goodwill in Lincoln County cannot afford to be complacent.

As a long-term community member, a father of three Montana daughters, and a forestry practitioner for over 40 years, I have witnessed this deterioration. This is an issue of primary concern for all citizens – not just those who are involved in the forestry sector. People are frustrated with decades long gridlock. They recognize that local governance of our County’s resources will create superior outcomes for all who enjoy pristine beauty and the fruits of a productive, healthy forest.

Where the federal lands are concerned, the status quo is not good enough. Instead of aiming for the lowest common denominator, we should set our goals high and aspire to change this situation. Lincoln County must lead and innovate. We need a pragmatic, “boots on the ground” approach combined with principled leadership from our County Commissioners and a growing stewardship ethic among the citizens towards our County’s resources.

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