An alternative to Washington-style politics

Helena Independent Record

by Loren Rose

The spectacular display of dysfunction that led to the recent government shutdown and the nation’s near-default offer a pretty clear reminder of the pitfalls of all-or-nothing politics.

That’s something we know all about.

As Montanans active in forest-management issues, perhaps we’ve never matched the enormity of the impasse in Washington, D.C. But we’ve certainly learned that all-or-nothing generally leads to nothing.

And, in marked contrast to the hardball negotiation tactics employed by Congress and the administration, we have learned that collaboration produces better results than confrontation.

Our experience revolves around Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, a bill now making its way through the U.S. Senate. After a favorable hearing this summer, the bill is now awaiting action in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

A large, diverse and bipartisan coalition is working together on this pragmatic, Made-in-Montana approach to improving national forest management. At a time when nearly any issue divides many Americans, Montana’s FJRA partners are more united than ever. And so is Montana. Repeated polls show that over 70 percent of Montanans support Tester’s forest jobs bill.

Our national leaders could learn a thing or two from our experience.

For decades, Montana’s wood products industry, environmentalists, hunters and anglers, off-road-vehicle enthusiasts and others fought bitterly over the future of our national forests. Each group pushed its own interests, often to the exclusion of others. All that fighting led to a stalemate. Nobody had enough clout to win the fight, but we all had enough strength to undermine the others.

We never precipitated a government shutdown, of course, but we have come close to experiencing a prolonged forest shutdown of sorts: Logging has declined, important watersheds and wildlife habitat have gone unprotected, and opportunities to put Montanans to work reducing wildfire risks to communities and restoring heavily used forests have languished.

Fighting the good fight may seem virtuous at times, but what matters in the end are the results. And there is no escaping the reality in Montana that the good fight over our national forests wasn’t doing anyone any good. Stalemate serves no one.

Eventually, we tried something different. Former adversaries, including loggers, wilderness advocates and other conservation groups, began working together to stake out common ground in several national forests – accepting the fact that we may never agree on everything but realizing, surely, we can agree on some things.

It turns out we agree on a lot. We agree that our forests offer opportunities for forest management than we are now seeing – and to create more jobs for rural communities. Montana’s wilderness advocates, hunters and anglers agree about this as much as the sawmill owners and loggers. We all need jobs and all want vibrant local economies.

We also agree that some places deserve as much protection as we can give them – like the watersheds that supply clean, cold water to many of our best trout streams and the wild places that provide security habitat for elk and other wildlife. We want these areas protected as much as anybody because, when the work week is over, we are just like the rest of Montanans. We head for the hills to hunt, fish and camp. The love of Montana’s wild side isn’t limited to any demographic group, profession or political persuasion.

What began as a few conversations in a few communities, initiated in part by then Republican Senator, Conrad Burns, snowballed into a series of collaborative proposals that were ultimately introduced as FJRA by Sen. Tester, a Democrat. It turns out bipartisanship is easier to come by when you start from the ground up.

Passage of the bill hasn’t come as quickly as we hoped, but you could say that for virtually every piece of legislation introduced in Congress during the last four years. Here in Montana, support remains strong, and the FJRA partnership remains committed. We’re confident that FJRA will improve national forest management in the areas covered by the bill, and we think the overall, collaborative approach can serve as a model for better forest management from the ground up, not the top down.

FJRA will produce more jobs in the woods, strengthen our timber industry and communities, protect some truly exceptional wildlands, and help safeguard our water and wildlife. But even as the bill works its way through Congress, FJRA is producing good results – fostering better relationships and more unity among Montanans.

Ultimately, the substance of the bill is paramount. But nobody should underestimate the value of the collaborative approach behind FJRA. It’s a break from the win-lose tactics of the past, an example of how we can do more by working together instead of pulling apart.

Loren Rose is with Pyramid Mountain Lumber. Others signing this column include Sherm Anderson, Sun Mountain Lumber, Brian Sybert, Montana Wilderness Association, Land Tawney, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Barb Cestero, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Tom France, National Wildlife Federation, Dan Daly, Roseburg Forest Products, Bruce Farling, Montana Trout Unlimited, Dave Chadwick, Montana Wildlife Federation, Ed Regan, RY Timber, Peter Aengst, The Wilderness Society.