Tester offers Forest Bill changes

Associated Press

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester released some changes Thursday to his logging and wilderness bill, beating back a Washington, D.C.-based rewrite of the carefully crafted Montana compromise.

Tester said the bill would die without the logging mandates a Senate committee removed from his plan. He has put them back in the bill, another step in what he characterized as a long road to declare the first new wilderness areas in decades.

"The process to get a bill through, even if it is simple bill, always takes time and there is always give and take," Tester said. "Our staffs are in negotiations with the committee multiple times per day."

Tester said critics trying to kill the bill have accused him of hiding it in the process. That has prompted him to take the unusual step of posting on his website the new "discussion draft" and any subsequent versions he authors.

The mandate to log 100,000 acres over the next 15 years, changed from 10 years, is quickly emerging as the key sticking point in negotiations with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Logging, restoration, wilderness declarations and establishing recreation areas such as for snowmobiles all need to be in the bill, Tester said.

"They have heartburn over the quotas, and that is obvious," Tester said of the committee. "We will continue to work with them on the four major components this bill has to offer."

While opponents on the right don't want any wilderness declarations in the bill, or at least not until it is proven the mandates will actually result in more logging, the opposition on the other side from ardent environmentalists naturally opposes the logging piece.

"As we move forward, let's hope Senator Tester and the collaborators give the ENR Committee's draft significantly more consideration than just proclaiming it 'Dead On Arrival,'" said Matthew Koehler, with the Last Best Place Wildlands Campaign.

Tester has made it clear, though, that is not going to happen because it would fracture the Montana coalition of loggers and environmentalists at the heart of the original deal. Tester pointed out the Forest Service, at first very uncharitable toward the idea, is now saying it presents a tremendous opportunity.

"I think there is a real appetite among folks in the West to manage the forest in a way that makes sense," Tester said.