Tester meets with 200 in Troy to discuss wilderness, logging legislation

The Missoulian

by Michael Jamison

TROY – Robyn King and Donna O'Neil can easily imagine the day when they'll be standing, shoulder to shoulder, in front of the judge.

"You'll be there," King told O'Neil, "and I'll be there, and that's never happened before. Personally, I think it will change the way the courts work."

King is a conservationist, and O'Neil a snowmobiler, and for years they've labored together with loggers and mill owners and outfitters and many others to hammer out a consensus plan for forest use in northwest Montana.

"This process really represented the fact that the polarization has dropped away in this town," said Doug Ferrill. "We're working together, finally."

In recent months, Sen. Jon Tester has appropriated their collaborative work, combined it with similar efforts from around Montana and presented it as a "forest jobs and recreation" bill.

It promises wilderness, motorized recreation and logging. On Saturday, Tester joined King and O'Neil and about 200 others in Troy, where he presented the package and then met one-on-one with all comers.

The crowd was generally enthusiastic, if somewhat skeptical, and hopeful that the effort might signal an end to the bitter divisiveness and gridlock that has long characterized both wilderness and logging projects on the Kootenai National Forest.

"Something's got to change," said local logger Kurt Rayson, "and we've got to start somewhere. This is as good a start as any. I mean, we can't stand back and not do anything."

Critics, such as Dave Skinner, agreed something must change – he estimates 700,000 forest acres per year are lost to beetles and wildfire – but argued the bill does not go far enough in opening lands to logging.

Still, the proposal has enjoyed substantial bi-partisan support so far, with backers including high-profile Republicans including former Gov. Marc Racicot and longtime GOP leader Bob Brown. More than 1,000 citizen co-sponsors have signed on, including both mainstream conservationists and the Montana Wood Products Association, Tester said.

But what happens, the critics worried, if the wilderness is designated but the promised logs never come?

"There's no guarantee" of logs, complained Skinner, "and yet they've front-loaded this thing with wilderness. And the litigants can still sue."

But if they do, King said, she and O'Neil will be there, side-by-side, environmentalist and snowmobiler, arguing that the plan created by such a wide diversity of interests deserves a chance to fulfill all its promises.

"If the wilderness advocates don't make sure the logging takes place, then they'll be jeopardizing any future collaborative efforts," said Phil Hough. "And the same goes for the loggers and the snowmobilers, too. There's a strong incentive for all parties to make sure that all the commitments are met and fully implemented."

But Skinner and others weren't buying it. He wants a "trigger" – meet the harvest goals first, he said, and then they can have their wilderness areas. "If you don't know it's going to be successful, why put the wilderness in up front?" he wondered.

O'Neil agreed, to a point, and worried that the legislation could become "nothing but a glorified wilderness bill without some sort of timber guarantee, or trigger."

In fact, exactly such a trigger was included in the plan first envisioned by the locals, but it was stripped when Tester took the bill to Washington. While the senator is willing to "massage" the bill with public input, any firm trigger language, the Montana Democrat said, would prove politically deadly in Congress.

(Hough and others believe the trigger talk is a "red herring," intended to derail discussion and sink the bill.)

But O'Neil still would like some sort of guarantee – the wilderness designations, after all, are permanent – and so she imagines perhaps a back-end trigger. Tester's plan for the Yaak area calls for logging on 3,000 acres per year for 10 years (part of a 50,000-acre forest restoration effort), and if that target's not met in a decade, she said, then perhaps the 30,000 acres of upfront wilderness should be reconsidered at that time.

Tester though, remained firm that any trigger – front-end or back-end – would be a deal breaker back at the Capitol, and reiterated the main goal "is getting something through Congress."

The bill already makes big changes to the status quo – tying wilderness to logging and recreation, mandating a federal harvest, setting national forest goals based on local consensus – and adding a trigger, he said, would simply prove "too big of a change."

He urged people to have faith that a bill directly from Congress – the first ever to mandate timber harvest – would carry considerable weight, and the majority of the crowd seemed willing to give that a try. When critics, at the close of the meeting, asked all those opposed to stand and be counted, perhaps 25 of the 200 or so attending rose. Many, like Skinner, were not from Troy, but had traveled from the Flathead Valley and elsewhere to make known their opposition.

But Skinner's concerns are not without a local voice. In fact, his desire for a trigger is echoed by many who were actively involved in crafting the Yaak compromise plan.

"We just have to trust in this process," O'Neil said, "and move forward as best we can."

Local hunting and fishing outfitter Tim Linehan argued that "the bill's language is strong enough to make sure that the logging and the access happens," adding that he would be there to defend each element "because from the logging to the recreation to the wilderness, this is good for my business."

As for those who think it bad for business, County Commissioner Jon Konzen acknowledged that "this is a very, very hot button in our community." But, he was quick to add, "the direction we've been going is not a positive direction."

It's been a direction of lawsuits and arguments, of both wilderness and logging standing stock still.

The bill won't change all of that, King said, but it does represent a beginning, a first step in a new way of doing things. And if it should stumble back into old ways, if people should see fit to file suit and try to block it, "they'll have to get past us first," she said.

King and O'Neil wrapped arms around each other's shoulders, unified, for once, in a moment of hard-won trust.

"We're natural allies," O'Neil agreed. "This place is what we have in common."