Talking about trees: Tester discusses forest, jobs bill in Missoula

The Missoulian

by Rob Chaney

Sen. Jon Tester started his day in Missoula with good news from fellow Sen. Max Baucus: The senior member of Montana's congressional delegation had co-signed the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.

He followed that with a packed open house, at the Doubletree Hotel, on the draft legislation. Rather than have the audience address the room at large, Tester's staff set up tables and people delivered their comments one-on-one. About 150 people attended.

"I just wanted to hear him talk about it," said Nate Conneran of Big Sky. "It sounds positive. It sounds like it's good for jobs and not shutting down the forests, either."

Missoulian Willis Curdy had suggestions for how the bill should be expanded. He was concerned that the Blackfoot-Clearwater portion of the bill needed to have more participation by federal, state and private timberland managers if that watershed was to see real improvement.

"I also want to make sure the money earned from timber projects goes back onto the ground," Curdy said. "My fear is that money from timber sales goes to some general fund."

Baucus' co-signature was the first thing Tester mentioned when he started discussing the draft bill. In the past, single-state wilderness bills have had the support of the state's congressional delegation, and Baucus had been silent on the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act since it was introduced in July.

The bill would affect large swaths of public land in the Blackfoot-Clearwater area around Seeley Lake, the Kootenai National Forest around Troy and Libby, and numerous parts of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest around Dillon, Ennis and Whitehall.

It clarifies which parts of decades-old wilderness study areas should now be open for timber harvest, protected as wilderness or managed as recreation sites. It also obligates the U.S. Forest Service to carry out logging and land restoration projects in partnership with local advisory groups.

Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg has criticized the legislation in the past for its lack of a trigger mechanism that would link wilderness designations to timber harvests. Tester said he'd have to find some other area to compromise on.

"This is going to direct the Forest Service to cut some trees," Tester said. "If we add triggers, we'd be dead in the water."

The bill has had a few changes in the drafting process. A proposed wilderness boundary in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest was adjusted so it didn't block a popular bike trail. Rules for military helicopter landings in the Highland Mountains got tweaked. Motorized use areas in the Snowcrest Mountains were clarified, as were the rights to access water reservoirs and communication towers in wilderness areas.

Tester said the bill's intention for "mechanical treatment" of 10,000 forest acres a year specifically meant logging, and that it was drafted that way to make sure courts understood there was local support for timber harvest.

"It's as close to mandatory as we can be without saying mandatory," he said. But he added the acreage is relatively small compared to the affected national forests. He also dismissed concerns about whether substitute logging projects could be found if initial choices fell through because of fires, bad weather or other factors.

Tester welcomed additional wilderness-and-logging efforts, such as the recent land use proposal for the Rocky Mountain Front. But he added that the Front project in particular and others like it probably wouldn't make it into S.1470 because of time constraints.

"I don't know if there's going to be another omnibus bill," he said, referring to a nationwide land-use bill that passed earlier this spring. "I think we can count on this being a stand-alone."