Tester's wilderness bill deserves Montanans' support

by Pat Williams

Sen. Jon Tester, with the announcement of his public land legislation, is reclaiming Montana’s pride in our long history of protecting the land through legislation.

For more than a century, Montanans have worked to maintain this state as a hunting and fishing paradise. From the late 1800s, our state Legislatures have created land set asides and passed fishing and hunting laws which provided significant benefits to both ample game and prime recreation.

During the nation’s environmental renaissance of the 1960s, Montana led the way with our own landmark state laws to protect our air and water and to determine appropriate siting of industrial plants.

Forty-five years ago, Montana’s U.S. Sen. James Murry and U.S. Rep. Lee Metcalf were among the original sponsors of America’s Wilderness Act; assuring that the first to be protected was Montana’s Bob Marshall. During the three decades that followed the designation of The Bob, our state’s congressional delegation had been in the forefront of protecting Montana’s and America’s most pristine wildlife habitat and fish spawning grounds.

Then came a legislative drought. Montana has not successfully guided a wildlands preservation bill through the U.S. House and Senate in 20 years. We haven’t even tried for a decade and a half.

Sen. Tester is attempting to regain Montana’s historic position as a leader in the long effort to preserve our natural heritage and maintain this last best place for fishing, hunting, and camping.

And more . . . the Tester legislation marks the first time in Montana’s history that congressional legislation combines the ultimate in land protection with the effort to statutorily prescribe some job assurances for the state’s timber industry.

Montana’s logging and milling operations have been barely hanging on by the bark. A decade ago many understood that the industry’s heydays in Montana had ended.

For better or worse, timber’s once major contributions to our economy are much diminished. Lack of demand for wood, low prices, foreign imports and, to some degree, lack of supply have combined to turn the marketplace into timber’s enemy. And yet mills and logging are still vital to a few of our communities.

Sen. Tester is trying, in the midst of this recession, to help timber through a difficult time. He wisely understands that once the industry shuts down, the infrastructure of mills, equipment, tools, and all the rest will be sold off or scrapped. Neither timber jobs nor income are likely to ever return. Once closed down, this industry, like many others, is gone for good.

Together let’s move our state back into the forefront of protecting the land while appropriately and carefully encouraging jobs. Sen. Tester has provided us the legislative vehicle. Let’s get on with it.