Tester: Forest Jobs bill can help reduce fire danger, create jobs

Clark Fork Chronicle

by John Q. Murray

Sen. Jon Tester reported progress on his Forest Jobs and Recreation bill, affirmed support for Secure Rural Schools, and again tried to quash the rumor about a federal land lockup in Montana.

He made the remarks during his monthly teleconference with Montana newspaper reporters on Thursday morning.

Sen. Tester said he recently held a productive breakfast meeting with chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) about moving the bill out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee . "We've got the Forest Service on board working to get some language squared away," he said, noting that the bill is getting closer to passage every day. "Every once in a while we get a hiccup and wonder if we can pull this through."

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is promoting a similar bill, and both senators presented their visions for their bills at the meeting.

Tester emphasized that he would not move his bill unless it includes all four components agreed upon by the collaborative group of Montanans who spent five years crafting the bill: wilderness, restoration, logging, and recreation.

"If at the end it is missing any of those components, then the bill will not move. I think they're all very important," he said.

He took issue with critics who say the logging portion of the bill is not sustainable.

"We're talking about three million acres of trees and 10,000 acres that will be cut," he said. "Ten thousand acres in three million. You can do the math, but it ain't much of a percentage."

It is one third of one percent.

As Montana enters into its summer wildland fire season, he said the bill would help protect residents.

"It's time everybody understands this stuff," he said. "When that understory dries up, that really creates a potential for forest fires."

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell testified recently that the agency has 18,000 firefighters ready this summer. But Tester added that he wished they could use some of the treatment provisions in the Forest Jobs bill right now. The bill's provisions for mechanical treatments would help to remove the dead and dying timber and reduce the fire hazard. "We need to get it passed, that's why we're fighting so hard to do it," he said.

Forest Jobs will also help save money, as the reclamation projects that rebuild streams and improve wildlife habitat will also help with financial sustainability, he said.

Other critics of the bill have questioned whether there is a market for the timber cut mandated.

"It's a chicken and egg kind of a thing," the senator explained. A mandate that the Forest Service must log 10,000 acres a year creates a market. Not all of the acreage will produce construction grade lumber such as plywood and two-by-fours, he pointed out. But a guaranteed supply could persuade businesses to invest in biomass, biochar, and energy production.

"A lot of folks want to do biochar, create electricity from wood products, make pellets out of wood products. They can't do it without a dependable supply," he said.

He reaffirmed his support for the Secure Rural Schools legislation. "I can tell you I'm very much in support of the money there for forest counties," he said. Failure to pass the bill would "raise havoc with your schools," he noted.

Tester said he enjoyed meeting on Secure Rural Schools with Mineral County Commissioner Duane Simons and the rest of the Montana delegation. "They came back and made a nice presentation," he said. "One of the things they've done this year is reach out to other areas of the country. They've got the Southeast in on it, they've got the Midwest in on it."

He said he appreciates Montanans coming to visit Washington D.C., and is amazed by how active the Montana citizenry is in its government. Every Wednesday, the muffins and coffee breakfast that he co-sponsors with Sen. Max Baucus gets "an incredible turnout," he said.

Sen. Tester again tried to quash a rumor that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has a secret plan to designate national monuments in Montana and restrict uses. Among others, Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg has called for the release of internal documents.

"Those documents are going to be released," Sen. Tester said in response to a question from the Chronicle. "Interior has released them all, I think. It's good they're releasing them all. Transparency in government is something I believe strongly in. Any time you get information out there, it will only help."

The senator's teleconference was scheduled during a historic day in in the Senate, as Congress and the public paid respects to the flag-draped coffin of the late Sen. Robert Byrd, the first to lie in repose in the chamber since 1959.

"He was the longest serving senator in U.S. history," Sen. Tester said. "He set an incredible example. He knew the Constitution like the back of his hand."

Tester said, "I feel blessed personally that I had the opportunity to serve with Senator Robert Carlyle Byrd."