Culture change does not come easy

The Montana Standard

by Editorial

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is remarkably unfazed that a high-ranking federal official expressed serious concerns about his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.

At the bill's first committee hearing in Washington Dec. 17, Agriculture Department Undersecretary Harris Sherman balked at a main provision of the bill that mandates logging or thinning on 7,000 acres of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest every year for the next 10 years.

Sherman, who oversees the Forest Service, said the plan was "not reasonable" and called on the senator to "alter or remove highly site-specific requirements." Was Sherman's testimony a game changer?

Not at all, Tester told The Standard during a phone interview last week. He "absolutely" thinks the bill still has a good chance of passing despite Sherman's opinion and said he knows of USDA officials above him who support the bill along with many rank and file Forest Service employees who agree it's time for a fundamental change in how the agency manages our national forests.

Is the senator even slightly inclined to take another look at the acreage mandates?

Not even slightly, Tester said, and neither are the original parties who forged the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership upon which the bill is based in part. In a national forest where 1.9 million acres have been identified as suitable for timber activity, surely the agency can find 70,000 over the next decade that can be cut.

"They can do this," Tester said. It will be a stretch, he acknowledged, and it won't fit nicely into the templates the agency is used to following, but it can be done. "We're here to help set policy," he said.

Whether or not you support this legislation, you can't help but admire the senator for standing firmly behind his Montana constituents who spent years hammering out the tough compromises on logging, wilderness and recreation areas that are contained in this bill.

He said it would be "unfair" at this point to start picking the agreements apart after so much work went into putting them together, and we tend to agree that now is not the time to start backtracking.

The 7,000-acre annual mandate does not mean all-out clear-cutting on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge. Broad landscapes would be carefully considered, with priority given to reducing wildfire risk in the wildland-urban interface regions and managing beetle-killed timber. Treatment would include thinning in some areas and removing conifers that are encroaching on natural meadows and aspen groves in others.

Remember, the whole thrust of this bill is to finally break the wilderness-versus-logging gridlock that has paralyzed forest management for decades and lies at the heart of why 7,000 acres annually is virtually unprecedented.

Tester said he didn't expect Sherman's strong testimony against the bill, but perhaps he should have. This proposed legislation is unprecedented, combining logging mandates with wilderness and recreation area designations, and it would launch a brand new chapter in national forest management. Keepers of the status quo rarely embrace radical change.

Increasingly, lawmakers in western states are recognizing the urgent need for a new management style, however, and they're taking cues from grassroots collaborative efforts. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., recently introduced a bill strikingly similar to Tester's that would guide forest management in eastern Oregon. Tester said Sens. James Risch, R-Idaho, and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., are considering bills, too.

As for his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, Tester said the next goal is to get it moved out of committee and on to the Senate floor for a vote. Let's hope he can accomplish that early next year, as the health care debate winds down. The sooner the better, for Montana's ailing timber industry and wilderness advocates alike.