Officials Surprised Baucus Backs Wilderness Bill

By Beacon Staff

BOZEMAN – Commissioners in Beaverhead and Madison counties were surprised this week when U.S. Sen. Max Baucus signed on as a co-sponsor to U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s wilderness bill.

Commissioners from both southwestern Montana counties said they thought they had an agreement with Baucus that he would not voice any support for the bill until local governments were comfortable with it.

In part, the bill would set aside 505,000 acres of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest as wilderness and require the U.S. Forest Service to harvest at least 7,000 acres of timber per year for 10 years. Elected leaders in Beaverhead and Madison counties said they are concerned about how the wilderness designation would affect ranchers and county tax proceeds.

“We were back there a year ago in July and specifically discussed that bill with Sen. Baucus,” Madison County Commissioner Dave Shultz said Tuesday. “What I took out of it was he was not going to support legislation that the local counties did not stand up for and support.”

“We’ve met with Sen. Baucus and he told me personally he would not support any wilderness bill in the county without the support of local government,” added Beaverhead County Commissioner Mike McGinley.

Baucus spokesman Ty Matsdorf said the senator decided to support the bill after carefully studying the legislation.

“Max signed on as a co-sponsor because it was drafted from the ground up, with input and support from a wide variety of Montanans, and (he) felt it offered a good and productive pathway forward to overcoming the urgent challenges facing our forests and our timber industry,” Matsdorf told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in an e-mail. “Max feels the time to act is now. This is a good bill for Montana and it will put people back to work in the woods.”

The commissioners said staff members for Baucus called them Monday to let them know Baucus had decided to support the bill, which creates about 600,000 acres of new wilderness in the state.

“A number of months ago, Sen. Baucus assured us he would not move forward unless he was confident local government and residents were in support of Tester’s bill,” said Madison County Commissioner Jim Hart. “We were kind of taken — I don’t know if ‘by surprise’ is the right word — wondering what his thoughts were.”

Tester highlighted Baucus’ support at a public hearing in Missoula on Monday.

The bill has support from logging companies and conservation advocates and, if it passes, would be the first new wilderness designation in Montana in nearly 30 years.

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