County to Tester: We need jobs

The Daily Inter Lake

by Jim Mann

Sen. Jon Tester heard comments Monday on banking, construction, health care, forestry and other sectors of the local economy, all with a main theme — the need for more jobs.

“The Flathead is not following suit with the rest of the state. We’ve lost over 4,000 jobs” since the recession started, Terry Kramer told Tester at a Kalispell Chamber of Commerce lunch Monday.

“You’re right, the Flathead is probably worse off than any other part of the state,” Tester said. “The Flathead is kind of at the point of the spear.”

While the official unemployment rate for Flathead County is just under 10 percent, Tester said it could be double that number because of job losses among independent contractors in sectors such as construction, real estate and forestry

that are not factored into the unemployment rate.

Tester told the Chamber group that he’s focused on several areas: “making sure that Main Street doesn’t pay for Wall Street screwups;” pursuing expanded energy development in Montana; ensuring that federal banking regulators do not overreach, particularly for small banks; and advancing his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.

The bill designates wilderness areas on more than 600,000 acres of federal forest lands but also has provisions that mandate minimum timber harvests and active forest management.

Tester maintains that it will help save jobs in the timber industry, which lost 1,700 jobs last year.

“Without the bill, Montana is going to lose its timber infrastructure,” he said, referring to mills along with loggers and truckers and their equipment and experience.

Earlier in the day, Tester visited the F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber site west of Columbia Falls for a tour on a potential biomass cogeneration plant. Stoltze managers are seeking incentives for the development of biomass energy that are comparable to the incentives afforded by the government for wind and solar power.

Wind and solar projects are not likely energy sources in Western Montana.

But biomass — wood waste products collected from forest management projects — is an obvious energy source for the region, said Keith Olson of the Montana Logging Association.

“It’s just a natural,” he said, urging Tester to pursue enhanced tax benefits and other incentives for biomass energy development. He predicted it would create forest jobs and preserve Montana’s wood-products infrastructure.

Tester agreed and noted that his forest jobs bill includes incentives for biomass energy.

Tester said he and his staff “constantly” hear concerns from Montana residents about the national debt and federal spending.

“We need to start addressing it in a way that makes sense for our kids, grandkids and our businesses,” he said.

He later said the only way to address the problem is through making cuts in spending or raising taxes, and higher taxes need to be avoided in the current economic climate.