Panel takes up Tester, Baucus forest bills

Associated Press

by Matt Gouras

HELENA, Mont. (AP) – U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester told their colleagues Tuesday that it is time to pass their bills expanding forest protections.

Both Democrats testified in Washington, D.C., to the U.S. Senate Public Lands, Forests, and Mining Subcommittee on measures that failed to clear the last Congress.

Tester’s plan to both mandate more logging and expand wilderness area was first introduced in 2009 and is billed as a compromise between timber mills and environmentalists. It stalled last year amid partisan differences accentuated by his heated re-election campaign.

“It is important to note that many of the stakeholders that have helped to write this bill used to only meet in the courtroom,” Tester said. “Now, they meet to find common sense solutions that create jobs and protect Montana’s outdoor heritage.”

The measure has also faced opposition in the past from different sides of the forest management debate. Some environmentalists opposed the deal because they argue it allows too much logging and not enough wilderness – while staunch wilderness area opponents say the deal permanently protects too much land.

In total, the legislation would mandate 70,000 acres of mechanical treatment, where logging and other forest management can happen, on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and on 30,000 acres in the Kootenai National Forest over 15 years. It would designate about 370,000 acres of recreation areas, such as for snowmobiles.

“We can all agree that something needs to be done to break through the gridlock and responsibly manage our forests so the West isn’t up in smoke again,” Tester said.

Baucus told the committee that his Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act is a plan by locals to preserve current conditions on some 275,000 acres of public land on the Rocky Mountain Front.

The bill would add 67,112 acres of new wilderness to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. It also proposes to designate 208,160 acres as Conservation Management Area. That designation is not as restrictive as wilderness but would permanently keep in place protections currently in the Forest Service’s travel plan.

Baucus said the land to be given a formal wilderness declaration is already being managed as a wilderness area. And he said current grazing, motorized, and other uses are enshrined in the legislation to also protect those activities at current levels.

Baucus has made the measure one of his top priorities before he retires at the end of next year.

“I first introduced the Heritage Act two years ago on behalf of thousands of Montanans who support this Made in Montana bill. This is not a top down bill. This is a bottom up bill,” Baucus said. “I’m determined to bring it to the finish line because it’s good policy today that ensures our moral obligation for tomorrow, for our kids and grandkids.”

So far, Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines is undecided on the proposals, and hasn’t said whether he would help push them through the Republican-controlled House if they clear the Democratically-controlled Senate. Daines said he continues to discuss the ideas with the senators.

Daines is backing a forest bill in the House that focuses more on logging. A committee is looking at the plan on Wednesday.

Daines said the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act will “cut the red tape” that impedes logging, and make it more difficult to file a lawsuit to stop such projects.