The Sweet and the Sour of Tester’s Wilderness Bill

By Beacon Staff

Based on my past commentaries, I suspect many readers expect me to oppose Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Restoration Act. And I might, but not now. Instead, I’m reserving judgment until I see how the bill fares in the legislative process.

As currently written, I see the bill as a sweet-and-sour pill. To summarize, here are a few things I like – and don’t like – about what could become Montana’s first wilderness bill in 26 years.

High-stakes political bet. In November 2006, moderate Democrat Jon Tester defeated conservative incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns by just 3,562 votes. It’s safe to say that most people who want more Wilderness voted for Tester – and that vote accounted for far more than 3,562 votes.

While campaigning, Tester promised to protect roadless lands if elected, but to the dismay of many of his supporters, he did nothing during his first two years in office. Now, by dropping his ultra-controversial “jobs bill” into the congressional sausage maker, he has managed to alienate many wilderness advocates who were already growing impatient with his inaction.

Our junior senator is obviously betting he can trade off a slice of the green vote, perhaps the most left among us, but people who definitely voted for him, for a slice of the business/jobs vote, people who probably didn’t vote for him, and come out ahead. The political pundits probably believe the left always vote Democratic and will again regardless of what Tester does, and moderates always win over liberals in primary elections.

Not enough logging. The timber industry is disappearing in Montana, and I am among those who’d like to save it, if possible. So I don’t think this bill goes far enough to help it.

I’m not sure any such legislation can overcome powerful market issues. Briefly, though, assuming we have technology to use small diameter trees, which I think we do, we should make better use of our national forests along permanent roads. If the timber industry would push for better utilization of second growth and bug-killed trees along permanent roads – for biomass, for alternative wood products, for pulp, whatever – and stop pushing for access to the last old growth in roadless forestland, they’d have a lot of new friends.

Two bills are better than one. Putting too much into one sausage leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It gets so complicated trying to accomplish two different, if not conflicting, goals and serving two different constituencies in the same bill. Why not split it into two bills, the Montana Wood Products Industry Relief Act and the Montana Statewide Wilderness Act, to be passed simultaneously.

Earth to the Forest Service. Basically, this bill cuts out the middleman, the Forest Service, in making timber-cutting decisions. Is this a good idea?

To be kind, the Forest Service is in disarray, suffering low morale, and in bureaucratic gridlock over constantly changing political winds and the stress of dealing with appeals and lawsuits. This bill sure seems like a thinly veiled message to the Forest Service to get its act together or Congress will start making land-management decisions.

Perhaps the Big Greens had their way with Tester. To me, the wilderness component of Tester’s bill seems much bigger than the logging component, and better than I expected. I’ve criticized the three Big Greens (Montana Wilderness Association, National Wildlife Federation and Montana Trout Unlimited) for how they greased this bill in the backrooms, but after reading the final product, I’m saying to myself, perhaps they knew they had it going their way, so why take a chance of involving “non-supportive people.”

Jobs bill? No way. You’ll note I called it a “wilderness Bill” in the headline because that’s how I see it. Regardless of how much Tester wants to promote a jobs cover story, it isn’t working. The only way this legislation could be considered a “jobs bill” is if you calculate all the new jobs created by the designation of 20 new and five expanded wilderness areas.

Why are we so scared or embarrassed to tell the truth and use the “W word?”

Still not enough for me. Even though the bill gives us 668,000 acres of new wilderness, it isn’t enough.

Montana has many other deserving areas ready for wilderness designations, areas that will never be logged, wild areas like the Great Burn or Rocky Mountain Front or the Bitterroot side of the Sapphires.

West pioneers. If there’s a game changer for me in the 84-page bill, it’s the release of 80 percent of the fabulous West Pioneers Wilderness Study Area, a congressionally mandated area (Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977, 3.393), which has, with the exception of some questionable if not illegal motorized access, been managed as wilderness for 32 years. I really have a hard time believing Congress would undo the work of legendary Montana Sens. Lee Metcalf and Mike Mansfield, who fought hard for the act, nor can I believe our leading green groups or Tester could even suggest this without choking on their own words.

Those are a few of my initial thoughts on what could become the end of Montana’s wilderness drought. Stay tuned.

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