Why Should I Support Tester’s Wilderness Bill?

By Beacon Staff

On July 17, I went to R-Y Timber Company in Townsend to stand in the sweltering heat and watch sweat pour off Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. On such a day you’d think Montana’s junior senator would be talking about global warming, but no, he was talking about an equally hot subject, Wilderness, as he officially announced the introduction of his Montana Jobs and Recreation Act (S. 1470).

Since then, I’ve written extensively about it, and now with the first congressional hearing coming up on Dec. 17, I’m trying to decide if this bizarre, piecemeal approach to protecting roadless lands has more upside than downside and if I should support it.

First, let’s talk nomenclature. Tester and the coalition of green groups and timber mills pulling the strings in the background decided to call it a “jobs bill,” which is almost insulting. Perhaps 5 percent of the bill indirectly deals with jobs and the rest with roadless land.

Conservationists opposing the legislation call it a “logging bill,” which is equally insane. The impact of the logging provisions are minute compared to the 668,000 acres of roadless land that becomes Wilderness and the 337,000 acres gets a lesser degree of protection such as National Recreation Area status.

So, just say it, Sen. Tester: It’s a Wilderness bill. It’s OK to use the word. How sad is it that politicians have to use lame cover stories to hide what acts of Congress really do.

I’d like to see more Wilderness in the bill, especially “politically ready” areas like the Great Burn and Rocky Mountain Front. I’d also prefer one grand bill to get it all behind us, but obviously our political delegation won’t consider this approach, so we’re stuck with this one-step-at-a-time strategy.

I’ve been criticized for “wanting it all” and being unwilling to compromise on the roadless land issue. And it’s true. I want all that’s left because we’ve already compromised too much. You can play with the numbers and come up with a different percentage, but the fact is the vast majority – I say at least 90 percent – of federal land managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management has already been compromised. That’s enough. The 90/10 split is as close to “balance” as we can possibly get.

All roadless lands don’t need to be designated Wilderness, but they all need protection. Sadly, though, no major green group will touch the idea.

Much to the chagrin of my left-handed friends, I have no problem with the logging provisos in S. 1470 that don’t sacrifice roadless land. I actually don’t think the bill goes far enough. I’d like to see Congress do something to really help the wood products industry, but a few mandatory cuts like those called for in this bill won’t have a noticeable impact. Let’s do something – preferably in a true logging bill not a thinly veiled Wilderness bill – that might turn the tide for the logging industry. A government push to help create a viable market for the millions of bug-killed lodgepoles along our permanent roadways would do for starters. The biomass study called for in the bill is a good example of moving in the right direction.

Having said all that, the following two amendments would make S. 1470 a clear winner for me.

Wilderness Study Areas. In their bill, the green groups including the Montana Wilderness Association, actually advocate giving up about 85 percent of the congressionally mandated West Pioneers WSA. Only the 25,000-acre core of the West Pioneers would become Wilderness, and the rest would become a National Recreation Area, which is a concession to continue to allow motorized recreation that should not have been allowed in the first place. This simply can’t happen, so if the coalition is unable or unwilling to designate all or most of the 151,000-acre WSA as Wilderness, then I say remove the West Pioneers from the bill, so it can continue as a WSA and live to fight another day.

Ditto for the Sapphire WSA. Most of the 43,500-acre section in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest would become Wilderness, but not the 51,000 acres in the Bitterroot National Forest. I must ask who cares if this 51,000 acres is in the Bitterroot NF or that the Ravalli County Commission hasn’t endorsed it. These are federal lands, and the Sapphires WSA, all of it, has essentially been managed as Wilderness since 1977, if not before. So why split it in half now?

Same goes for the seven WSAs managed by the Bureau of Land Management, all “released” by the bill. Please, no backtracking; make them Wilderness or leave them as WSAs.

Roadless lands. After long discussions with Tester’s staff, I’m confident that even if the bill passes as currently written, hardly any, if any, roadless land will be compromised. But the bill doesn’t say this, so let’s say it. Minor re-wording to firmly say no logging in inventoried roadless areas won’t, in practice, change anything except calm criticism for the bill.

So, back to the original question: Should I support it?

Yes, I should, albeit reluctantly, and I hope you do, too. We have to start somewhere or we’ll continue going nowhere.

Politics suck, something I’m sure a lot of us can agree on, and it’s embarrassing to watch the process we have to endure to designate Wilderness nowadays, but the bill itself, even without two key amendments I recommend above, is a start. Even if it passes exactly as written, I’ll join the coalition in welcoming the end of Montana’s 27-year Wilderness Drought, but I won’t be dancing in the streets because I’ll be busy trying to swallow this bitter political pill.

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