Tester Tackles Forest Disputes with Sweeping Bill

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is tackling bitter, decades-old forest disputes head-on, unveiling a plan Friday that promises both more logging and more wilderness areas in Montana.

At the same time, the senator’s new legislation carves out thousands of acres of federal land in Montana as new designated recreation areas for such activities as mountain biking, snowmobiling and ATV use.

Tester introduced the “Forest Jobs and Recreation Act” at a timber mill in Townsend on Friday afternoon. It is billed as a cooperative agreement between some wilderness groups, loggers and other interest groups.

“Today we are making history,” Tester said in prepared remarks. “We are here because Montanans from different walks of life sat down and worked together to find a new way to promote all of Montana’s outdoor values.”

The measure adds more than 600,000 acres of wilderness by creating some new areas, mostly in southwestern Montana’s Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, and also adds to the existing Bob Marshall, Mission, Anaconda-Pintler, and Lee Metcalf wilderness areas.

At the same time, the bill tells the U.S. Forest Service it must log thousands of acres of trees each year from large swaths of land specified in the bill as open for logging. The aim is to provide a steady source of timber to the state’s logging industry.

More than 330,000 acres go to establish new recreation, protective or special management areas. For the most part, they simply protect current motorized use or other recreation. But the Forest Service is directed to map available ATV trails, for instance, and in some cases study possible new trails in areas lacking such routes.

The aggressive measure aims to give historically divided constituencies all a little something.

But the measure has already caused bitter disputes in the environmental community even before it was introduced. Some environmentalists critical of Tester say it gives far too little in wilderness and allows way too much logging.

Paul Richards, who dropped out of the 2006 U.S. Senate primary to back Tester, says the Democrat is backing out of a campaign promise to protect remaining roadless areas. He has bitterly accused Tester of hatching in secret a “well-orchestrated and well-funded assault upon Montana’s roadless public wildlands.”

But others praised Tester’s plan. It draws on work from the Montana Wilderness Association’s Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership, and smaller such proposals in the Seeley Lake from the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project and another in far northwestern Montana that came from Three Rivers Challenge in the Kootenai National Forest.

Montana has not seen a new wilderness designation since the 1980s. At the same time, the logging industry has complained that their work in other lands have succumbed to bureaucratic and legal gridlock.

The 84-page bill has specific directions in mapped areas for the U.S. Forest Service.

For instance, in the Beaverhead area, it mandates that the U.S. Forest Service harvest an average of at least 7,000 acres of timber a year from 1.9 million acres of ground identified by the senator’s plan. It also mandates that restoration work — everything from prescriptive burning, to fixing or removing roads or logging to treat dead trees — be completed on 50,000 acres.

“The Forest Jobs Bill will create good new jobs now,” Tester said. “It will restore our forests and get people working again in the woods. And it will protect Montanans’ access to America’s best fishing, hunting, camping and hiking — important traditions that are deeply ingrained in our heritage.”

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