Montana businesses rally behind Tester forest bill

Bozeman Daily Chronicle

by Laura Lundquist

The passage of wilderness-related legislation is always a lengthy process requiring multiple tries.

Now, thanks to an early hearing and growing business support, the third attempt may be the charm for Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.

In anticipation of a July 30 Senate committee hearing on the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, Business for Montana’s Outdoors, which represents 60 business owners from 20 Montana towns, sent a letter Tuesday encouraging Montana’s three congressmen to work together to pass the bill before the year’s end.

“We just added seven or eight businesses; we’ve been chipping away at it,” said Jeff Batton, CEO of the Natural Baby Company in Bozeman. “We’re getting large enough that people might start paying attention.”

Most wouldn’t link baby products to forest jobs, but Batton said it’s all about quality of life.

“Tourism businesses aren’t the only ones that benefit. I want motivated, creative people, and many have chosen to live here for what it has to offer,” Batton said.

Josh Fairbanks of Oboz Footwear said his business would benefit because his customers buy boots to explore Montana’s public land. But the area also provides a draw for hiring.

“We started in 2008 with two employees, and now we’re up to 10,” Fairbanks said. “We provide a flexible work schedule to allow our employees time to enjoy the outdoors.”

Tester’s bill would create 700,000 acres of wilderness in exchange for guaranteed timber harvest on up to 100,000 acres and a streamlining of regulatory approval for timber contracts.

Businesses in the logging industry stand to benefit from passage of the bill, but tourism businesses wouldn’t lag far behind if more people come to Montana to enjoy the wild places.

Dan Vermillion owns Sweetwater Travel Company, but as a Fish, Wildlife & Parks commissioner, he said he also understands how public comment can influence decisions.

“When you look at all the businesses that have come together, this bill has broad-based support,” Vermillion said. “Up until now, it’s been easy to overlook tourism, but it’s an important and growing industry for Montana. But it’s still just one area that would benefit from this bill.”

Tester spokeswoman Andrea Helling said the letter would probably carry some weight.

“The tie-in with the economic benefit is an important perspective for the committee members to hear,” Helling said. “The way the bill could help other local businesses has not really been talked about in the past.”

The bill was reintroduced for the third time on Jan. 22, after failing to make it out of Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in 2011 and 2009.

Vermillion said the bill didn’t have a chance last year because of the election.

“If (Denny) Rehberg hadn’t been running for Senate, it might have done better. It died because of politics,” Vermillion said. “Hopefully this year, they’ll put politics aside.”

Helling said July 30 is the earliest point in past sessions that previous attempts at the bill have been heard. This time around, it has more time to get it through.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee also has a new chairman, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who will probably be more receptive since he has a similar bill dealing with Oregon lands, Helling said.

Helling said an autumn rewrite of the bill would be a positive step toward passing it to the House. Rep. Steve Daines hasn’t decided on how he’d vote on the bill.

Daines spokeswoman Alee Lockman said Daines is still researching the bill but supports more streamlined forest management and increased opportunities for the logging industry.

Vermillion said he’d like to see Daines join with the rest of the Montana delegation and pass the bill. Daines has already proposed a bill to preserve the North Fork of the Flathead.

“The North Fork of the Flathead was low-hanging fruit,” Vermillion said. “Legislation like this takes more leadership and Tester has stepped up. Daines needs to step up too.”