Tester touts forest jobs bill, decries partisanship

The Helena Independent Record

by Eve Byron

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., touched on a wide range of topics during a meeting Tuesday with the Independent Record’s editorial board, including partisan bickering in Washington, D.C., his forest jobs bill and the economy.

Many of those topics are related, according to Tester, who noted that the people he’s talked to in Montana are concerned about the economy and said that his proposed Forest Jobs and Recreation Act could help create jobs.

“There’s an overall uncertainty about where we are going now, but doing nothing … is really not the best solution here,” Tester said, adding that the health care debate falls into that category, too.

He said his forest jobs bill would create jobs and aid lumber mills by requiring logging on an average of 70,000 acres per year for 10 years in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and 30,000 acres in the Kootenai National Forest. The plan also would add 681,000 acres of Montana wilderness, while dropping 76,000 acres that were under consideration for wilderness designation.

But Tester acknowledged that he can’t predict how many jobs will be created, how much the bill might cost to implement and how much savings it would generate by tempering the threat of wildfires through forest thinning.

“I think that ultimately it will save money … but it will cost some money because of the up-front work that needs to be done,” Tester said.

He added that the measure wouldn’t take management of the public lands out of the hands of the Forest Service by mandating logging, but would instead “give it the tools” needed by the federal agency to better take care of those properties.

“Ultimately, it will be their decision where those trees are cut,” Tester said.

A stronger economy will aid the forests by creating markets for the lumber, but Tester noted that’s going to take time.

“If you have a housing market that’s overbuilt, you have to get that inventory behind you before you can start building houses again,” he said. “So we need to be investing in infrastructure and make sure we have the kind of environment businesses can succeed in.”

He added that while the economic downturn during the past few years has been difficult for people, recent unemployment figures provided some positive news.

Tester expressed regret at Monday’s announcement by Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., that he’ll step down when his term ends because of partisan bickering. Tester called Bayh a “genuine man who does a good job” and added that he’s going to stick around D.C. to try to make the system work.

“It’s frustrating, but I think the system has worked for over 200 years and it will continue to work. It’s just a matter of working at it,” he said.

Tester believes the partisanship in D.C. increased with the recent election of Scott Brown, R-Mass., to the seat held by the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy for decades, and that it’s affecting the health care debate in a negative manner. He said he’s trying to combat the increased bickering between the parties by reaching out to individuals in a professional manner.

“I just focus on what we are doing and treat people with respect,” Tester said. “… But we are focusing on where we are different rather than where we are together.

“To have loggers, environmentalists and recreationalists sit down and say they understand what they’re doing isn’t working is a lesson D.C. can learn a lot from. We need to set aside our differences and work on what we have in common.”