Tester’s Forest Bill Gets New Senate Hearing

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s bill to increase both logging and wilderness areas in Montana was the focus of another Senate hearing Wednesday as the Democrat hopes to move forward a plan that has already become an issue in his high-profile election challenge from Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in Washington again took testimony on a re-introduced version of a bill Tester first put forward nearly two years ago. Committee members expressed interest in working with Tester to advance a measure that died late last year as part of a last-minute budget bill.

Tester told the panel that he is willing to make some changes to get support for the bill, such as by keeping access open in a border area crossed by snowmobilers from Idaho. The Obama administration, which had originally been cool toward the plan before endorsing it last year, again testified in support of the measure.

“It will put people to work in the woods, creating jobs for the timber and restoration industries. It will make our beetle-killed forests healthier, lowering the risk of catastrophic wildfire,” Tester told the panel. “It will help protect our communities from catastrophic wildfires. It will improve trout and elk habitat. It will secure places for people — and our kids and grandkids — to enjoy the land they own.”

Supporters called the plan a good compromise between loggers and environmentalists that cuts through years of gridlock and bitter disputes over forest management in Montana.

Rehberg, who is challenging the Democrat for his Senate seat next year, is helping coordinate opposition that includes some mining and motorized user groups. Those groups held a morning conference call arguing they never felt they were part of the compromise between some loggers and environmentalists. And they said they don’t support a plan they believe will result in permanent closures with no promise access in other areas will be retained.

Some on the other side of the spectrum, ardent environmentalists, have also opposed Tester’s bill — arguing it gives up far too much logging in exchange for too little in remote wilderness.

Rehberg has challenged Tester, and the battle is widely expected to be among the most watched as the parties vie for control of the U.S. Senate after the 2012 elections. Both sides, staking out ground in an already tough and bitter campaign, have made Tester’s forest bill an issue.

Rehberg has argued he could not support the plan unless there is more guarantee the logging will actually take place before the wilderness area expansions are granted.

A key supporter testifying in support of the bill said Wednesday that it is needed to save the state’s dying timber industry.

Sherman Anderson, a Deer Lodge timber mill owner and Republican, said dead and dying trees on federal land need to be taken care of. Initial meetings with environmentalists to reach a deal on the controversial issue were “very tense” but led to an important compromise, he said.

“Our survival will depend on a more reliable supply of timber from our national forests,” Anderson told the panel.

In total, the legislation would mandate 70,000 acres of mechanical treatment on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and on 30,000 acres in the Kootenai National Forest over 15 years. It would designate about 370,000 acres of recreation areas, such as for snowmobiles.

A centerpiece of the legislation, which has lured the support of the Montana Wilderness Association and some other environmental groups, would designate 666,260 acres of wilderness, about 2,800 less than originally proposed.

The same panel on Wednesday also took testimony on a bill, brought by Tester and U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, which would bar mining and new oil and gas development on the North Fork watershed of Montana’s Flathead River. That proposal has faced little opposition as companies in the area have voluntarily been retiring leases they hold in that region.