A deal’s a deal.

Bozeman Daily Chronicle

by Editorial

That’s the message Montana Sen. Jon Tester has for the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. And, in reality, he has little choice.

Tester’s forest bill came out of a delicate compromise among diverse forest user groups. It would create some 600,000 acres of wilderness — mostly here in Southwest Montana. But it would also set aside areas for motorized recreation and require the logging of 10,000 acres of forest in each of the next 10 years.

The diverse bill was crafted by representatives of wilderness advocates, motorized recreationists and timber industry representatives. And that mix has made for widespread — if fragile — support for the bill.

But now members of the Senate committee are proposing to strip the logging and motorized recreation out of the bill and just establish the wilderness areas.

Senate memories are apparently not all that long. It’s been more than 20 years since the Montana congressional delegation came close to passing wilderness-protection legislation. That measure designated wilderness and wilderness only — more than 5 million acres around the state — and made it through the Democrat-controlled House and Senate only to be vetoed by then-Republican President Ronald Reagan, who had absolutely no stake in the Montana wilderness politics.

Such is the divisive nature of Montana wilderness politics. Even an act of Congress is not enough to resolve the issue. The veto essentially stalled any progress on the issue for more than two decades.

Tester’s bill is an experiment of sorts. It only deals with a portion of the state, and it does a whole lot more than just designate wilderness. It includes something meaningful for a range of forest users — not just wilderness advocates. And that is what has created a consensus of support that rises above the politics of Washington.

If the Senate committee strips out all but the wilderness designations, as it is proposing to do, it will self-destruct. Support for the bill will crumble and it is doomed. It’s that simple.

Tester has said he will come up with a counter-offer to the committee’s proposal this week, but he will not be able to stray far from the original bill, or opposition will begin lining up — and it will be formidable.

If Tester can hold this measure together and move the Montana wilderness debate off the dime, it may offer a template for resolving this decades-old conundrum for the entire state.