Forest Jobs Bill an Ambitious Gambit by Tester

By Beacon Staff

Jon Tester’s recently introduced Forest Jobs and Recreation Act may be the most significant piece of legislation he has created in his, still relatively short, career in the U.S. Senate.

The ambitious bill by the Democrat from Big Sandy attempts to tackle several of Montana’s thorniest and most divisive issues in one fell swoop: to generate work for loggers and sawmills at one of the most tenuous junctures in the history of the state’s timber industry; to expand Montana’s wilderness areas for the first time in decades; to grapple with the decimation of forests by beetles and in doing so, enhance the protection of communities near these forests in advance of the day when they burn.

In a conference call with Western Montana reporters last week, Tester described the bill as “a bold new plan to break through the logjam that has really held back the timber industry.”

“Montana’s forest communities face a crisis and that crisis demands action,” he added.

By rolling out this bill, Tester is making the case that Montana has moved past the days when those with competing interests fought bitterly to no avail over land use. Instead, the legislation seeks to give something to everyone, from wilderness advocates and quiet trail users to the timber industry and motorized vehicle enthusiasts.

But critics on all sides are already questioning the legislation and how it was drawn up. Some conservation groups argue the bill opens up too much land for logging in exchange for a relatively small increase in wilderness. They also wonder how mandated logging is ever going to pay for itself when demand for timber is at an all-time low. Critics on the other side question how many jobs the bill can actually create. While wilderness is guaranteed the moment it becomes designated, no such guarantees exist when it comes to attempts at reinvigorating Montana’s timber industry amid a housing slump and an abysmal economy.

“As far as whether we’ve got some folks for or against it, it’s a collaborative process,” Tester said. “Nobody gets everything they want, but in this case, everybody gets a lot.”

The bill is centered on three areas in Western Montana: the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, the Three Rivers District of the Kootenai National Forest and the Seeley Lake District of the Lolo National Forest. The bill draws heavily on the community partnerships and tentative land use proposals already formed by communities in and around these forests, negotiations and debates that have been going on for years – that’s part of the reason Tester is able to argue that the writing of his bill was a highly collaborative process, despite the secrecy by him and his staff in the weeks preceding its introduction.

“We pretty much took their recommendations and we tweaked them a bit and we moved forward,” Tester said.

As part of its so-called stewardship areas, the U.S. Forest Service must offer up 7,000 acres for logging on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and 3,000 acres in the Kootenai annually. These cuts come out of a 50,000-acre restoration area the Forest Service must create within a year of the bill’s passage. Most of the cutting would come from some 2 million acres of roaded forest already identified for timber management, though some roadless land is also opened up to logging as well.

Tester’s bill designates 609,000 acres of wilderness on national forest land, and 59,000 acres of wilderness on land under the Bureau of Land Management currently classified as Wilderness Study Areas. Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) currently managed as wilderness, and the bill releases the West Pioneer and part of the Sapphire WSA from being managed as such. Seven parcels managed as WSAs by the BLM would also no longer receive that protection.

Any stewardship projects carried out under the bill must be in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as well as any grizzly bear management plans. The bill also designates recreation areas for motorized vehicle use, as well as mountain biking, and agencies must carry out a study to whether heating and power systems generated from biomass by these logging projects could be beneficial to communities.

According to Tester’s staff, the stiffest criticism of the bill has come from the left. Perhaps the most outspoken opponent of the bill so far has been Paul Richards, who says Tester betrayed a 2006 promise he made to Richards to protect Montana’s roadless areas in exchange for Richards dropping out of the Democratic primary race for the U.S. Senate, and lending his support to Tester.

“The Tester Logging Bill is a well-orchestrated and well-funded assault upon Montana’s roadless public wildlands,” Richards said in a statement. “The Tester Logging Bill was conceived and executed in very dark, dank, secret corners, by people with extremely limited tolerance for public involvement in public land stewardship.”

Reaction to the bill, however, has been mixed. Robyn King is executive director of the Yaak Valley Forest Council and a member of the Three Rivers Challenge, a coalition of loggers, mill owners, conservationists, guides and motorized vehicle users who drew up a land use plan upon which the Tester bills designations in the Kootenai Forest are based. While King was careful not to speak on behalf of other members of the group, her initial response to the bill was one of praise.

“As far as the Three Rivers Challenge, it certainly kept the intent of what we wanted to achieve in our community, which was jobs, first and foremost, and protection of special places,” King said.

Tester hopes for a Senate vote on the bill this fall, though there are several ways it could work its way through Congress. He also acknowledged there could be some political resistance from his colleagues representing eastern and coastal states who may oppose the amount of logging called for in the bill.

“It’s a step in the right direction for Montana and this country,” Tester said, “This bill is really just a first step down a long trail.”

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