Rule, forest plans still apply to roadless lands under Tester bill, supporters say
Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series of stories examining issues raised by Sen. Jon Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.
During a public meeting on Sen. Jon Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, Missoula resident Jackie Corday asked a question that nearly stumped the panel of speakers: How many inventoried roadless forest acres would be labeled "available for possible harvest" under the bill?
After several other speakers took a stab at it, Tester staff member Tracy Stone-Manning declared 900,000 acres of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest's roadless territory would be in the yellow harvest zones on the legislation's map. But that left a bigger, unspoken question: What does that mean?
According to Tester's staff, it means a breakthrough in Montana's three decades of timberland debate. Senate Bill 1470 identifies where a coalition of loggers, environmentalists and the U.S. Forest Service agree logging can be done. And it skips a fight over "release language" for other lands – the flashpoint that wrecked several previous wilderness bills.
Montana has millions of public acres caught in various forms of legal limbo. These include wilderness study areas, recommended wilderness and inventoried roadless areas. Previous wilderness bills hung up on what to do with the land that didn't get declared wilderness, but was nonetheless roadless: Was it released for logging or other development, or left in limbo?
Inventoried roadless acres aren't wilderness. They aren't active timberlands either.
But they are political hot potatoes, getting kicked around in three versions of the U.S. Forest Service rule-making process and litigated in two separate federal courts of appeals.
Tester's bill would put 670,000 acres of Montana wildlands into federal wilderness status, colored green on his maps. That's the most restrictive category, prohibiting motorized vehicles or equipment inside its boundaries.
Another 336,000 acres would become recreation management areas – protected from industrial development, but open to motorized use and other activities. Those are colored brown.
Most of those areas are bordered or surrounded by land shaded yellow: the "possible harvest" acreage. The 900,000 roadless acres in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest come from that district's new forest plan – the Forest Service's own guidebook for what activities should happen where. Beaverhead-Deerlodge staff updated their forest plan last year, while most other Montana national forests are still working with plans at least 10 years old.
Forest Service roadless areas must be more than 5,000 contiguous acres of public land without improved roads. There are 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless land in the United States. In Montana, 6.4 million of the state's 16.9 million acres of national forest are inventoried roadless acres.
According to Forest Service maps, 2 million acres of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge's 3.3 million acres is considered roadless. Most of that, 1.65 million acres, is roadless but allows for road construction and reconstruction.
The Kootenai National Forest has 639,000 acres of inventoried roadless land out of almost 2.3 million acres. The Three Rivers portion of S. 1470 would affect 400,120 acres, of which 73,029 are inventoried roadless. The Blackfoot-Clearwater portion of S. 1470 would turn almost all of its roadless territory into additions to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas.
Opponents such as Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg have asked Tester to put firm release language into the bill as a "phased-in trigger:" more wilderness only as more logging is confirmed. Tester has responded that such triggers would doom the bill in Congress, and restart the release language fight he's determined to avoid.
Some wilderness advocates aren't happy either.
"I think this is a gray area – will this bill allow logging in roadless areas?" questioned George Nickas of Wilderness Watch, a critic of S. 1470. "I think this would override the Roadless Rule as a statute. And the frustrating thing is our inability to get a straight answer on if the roadless areas in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge are open to logging."
The answers are yes, no and relax, according to S. 1470 supporter John Gatchell of the Montana Wilderness Association. Yes – current federal law allows logging in inventoried roadless areas. No – Tester's bill doesn't designate anything differently than the Forest Service does. And relax – because what the bill does is focus timber action in places that already have lots of roads or development impacts, and away from roadless areas.
"Those are going to be the priorities, if the bill is amended as Tester wants," Gatchell said. "It will produce logs for mills, and the roadless areas will remain roadless. Both things can happen, and it doesn't require one side to lose and one side to win."
Under the Obama administration, any logging proposed for inventoried roadless areas would have to be approved by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack himself. Tester's bill doesn't change that, Gatchell said, giving further incentive to leave the roadless areas alone unless lots of players agree it's necessary.
One change Tester proposed after a series of scoping meetings last summer was increased harvest work on the wildland-urban interface – the forests close to communities and subdivisions that are most at risk in forest fires. In the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, there are 170,000 acres of such lands.
Tester's bill mandates 7,000 acres of mechanical treatment a year in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge. Those wildland-urban lands alone would fill that mandate for the next decade and beyond, according to his staff.
The bill doesn't change the roadless acres' status from what either the federal Roadless Rule or the Forest Service forest plans dictate. They aren't made into wilderness or targeted for intensive logging. And the current non-timber uses, such as snowmobiling and livestock grazing, don't change either.