Tester’s bill a step in right direction

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle

If the measure of a good compromise is an equal amount of opposition from either side of the issue, Montana Sen. Jon Tester seems to have struck a good one with his recently proposed forest-management bill.

The proposal would designate as wilderness some 670,000 acres of public roadless lands in Montana. That would normally be a call to arms to those in the timber industry who depend on public forest lands for a steady supply of logs.

But Tester seasoned his proposal with something for them as well: a requirement that at least 7,000 acres of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest be logged each year.

Representatives from industry and wilderness-advocacy groups were consulted during the preparation of the bill, and those individuals and organizations have endorsed the plan. Others, however, have begun to grumble — which is to be expected any time the issue of logging or wilderness preservation enters a Montana conversation.

Some 5 million acres of Montana roadless lands were identified many years ago, and yet it has been 26 years since any new lands were formally designated as federally protected wilderness. This stalemate is a testament to the volatility of the forest-management debate.

In preparing his bill, Tester wisely invited a limited number of representatives from the two major factions in the debate to participate. This strategy has produced positive results in resolving land-management disputes in other parts of the state.

Beginning the discussion by finding out what the factions have in common — rather than where they differ — fosters positive and constructive discussion that has been absent from this debate for far too long.

But there are naysayers of course.

Some wilderness advocates who didn’t participate in the process are complaining that Tester’s bill affords wilderness designation to less than 10 percent of the state’s roadless areas while leaving the fate of the remainder unresolved.

But if discussion can be limited to small parts of the whole, there is much higher potential for finding common ground. And the fate of other roadless lands can be determined later through additional legislation produced by discussions between principal user groups in different parts of the state.

The bill is also drawing the ire of other user groups, mountain bikers and motorized users who charge they were left out of the discussion. But their concerns can be addressed as the bill wends its way through congressional debate, as long as the core of the agreement remains intact.

Resolving some of the questions that have lingered far too long over Montana’s public lands will be good for everyone: Forest industry workers, recreationists and the communities they live in.

Though it’s not perfect, Tester’s bill may signal a change in the debate that will help bring that about.