Tester’s forest jobs and recreation bill goes to Senate committee this week

Associated Press

by John Adams

HELENA — Sen. Jon Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, a bill the Montana Democrat has championed for nearly two years, will get another Senate hearing Wednesday.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hear testimony on the 52-page bill that would create new wilderness in parts of Montana, mandate logging in some forests and establish permanent recreation areas.

A similar version of the bill stalled last year after a December 2009 committee hearing. Tester refused to accept the committee's proposed changes to the measure that would have stripped mandating logging provisions, calling the committee's proposal "dead on arrival."

Bill Wicker, spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said committee Chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M, has not weighed in on the latest version of Tester's bill and probably won't until after Wednesday's hearing. However, the current draft of the bill is very similar to one Bingaman expressed concerns about in the last session.

Unable to get the bill out of committee, at the last minute Tester inserted the measure into a $1.2 trillion omnibus spending bill to fund government programs for 2011. Democrats ultimately scrapped the massive spending bill in December, after failing to muster enough support to bring it to the floor for a vote.

The current proposal mandates logging on 70,000 acres of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, and 30,000 acres on the Three Rivers District of the Kootenai National Forest over 15 years. The measure also requires the U.S. Forest Service to implement large watershed and forest restoration projects each year over the next 15 years in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and the Three Rivers District of the Kootenai National Forest. The bill designates 369,501 acres of recreation areas and 666,260 acres of wilderness while releasing 11 wilderness study areas that have been managed as wilderness since the 1977 passage of former Montana Sen. Lee Metcalf's Wilderness Study Act.

Supporters of Tester's measure call it a commonsense "made-in-Montana" solution to the decades-long gridlock over forest land management. Critics say its passage would mark an extraordinary congressional takeover of land management decisions and set a bad precedent for public lands management across the nation.

Brian Sybert, executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association, said the current version of the bill is an improvement over the original measure unveiled in 2009.

"The changes that have been made through the various public processes, public meetings and the last Senate hearing have improved the bill, and make it a better bill in terms of focusing the timber portion of the bill toward restoration," Sybert said. "Basically, you're looking at timber as a way to improve wildlife habitat, improve fisheries, and it puts a lot of emphasis on restoration and restoring areas that have already been impacted."

Tester touts the measure as a way to "put folks back to work in the woods" and strengthen the state's timber industry, which plummeted in recent years as the nationwide demand for lumber dropped to historic lows.

"The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act also carefully balances timber harvest and forest restoration with smart wilderness and recreation area designation," Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy said. "Bottom line is this bill will create jobs, it will make Montana's forests, fish and wildlife healthier, it will make our water cleaner and it will create new recreation areas within our national forests."

Sherman Anderson, president and owner of Sun Mountain Lumber in Deer Lodge, and Dell resident Wally Congdon, District 3 director for the Montana Cattlemen's Association, have been invited to testify at the hearing. Anderson testified in favor of the measure at the December 2009 hearing. Neither man could be reached for comment Friday.

Matthew Koehler of the Missoula-based WildWest Institute testified alongside Anderson at the 2009 committee hearing. Koehler has been an outspoken opponent of the mandated logging provisions and the releasing of wilderness study areas. Unlike Anderson, Koehler was not invited back to Washington, D.C., to testify before the committee, but in an interview he said the bill continues to be problematic.

"We are troubled that Senator Tester and his collaborators refuse to accept the fact that this bill contains a number of irresponsible and unnecessarily risky provisions, which not only could cause negative impacts to Forest Service budgets in our region, but also threatens America's national forest legacy," Koehler said. "It establishes a new precedent where Washington, D.C., politicians simply mandate resource extraction levels on our public lands. That's a road we needn't travel down."

Wilderness Watch Executive Director George Nickas said he contacted Tester's staff with concerns over certain wilderness provisions after the bill was re-introduced in January. Nickas, who said Tester's staff was receptive to his suggestions and posted a revised version of the bill on the senator's official website in April. However, the committee's focus this week will be on the original version introduced in January.

Nickas said he is appreciative of some of the changes offered by Tester in April, but he still doesn't support the measure.

"It is an improvement as it relates to the wilderness management provisions, but it's not an improvement in terms of what areas are designated as wilderness. It's not an improvement over what areas are released from wilderness study protection. It's not an improvement on any of the other provisions," Nickas said. "Our foundational concern remains the idea that we essentially have a senator writing forest management plans into law, where Congress is dictating logging levels and dictating specific things on land management that we think are very problematic."

Nickas said he doesn't believe Bingaman has warmed to the mandated logging provisions in Tester's bill, and the chances of the measure getting a committee mark-up are slim.

Murphy said Tester is committed to getting the bill passed, even if that means attaching it as a rider to another piece of legislation.

"Jon's always said his goal is to get this jobs bill passed because Montanans want it and Montana needs it, and he will continue to look for any opportunity to do so now that the bill has been through nearly two years of public debate, public revisions and public input," Murphy said. "Jon will never shy away from his job, which is passing legislation that is right for Montana. Wednesday's hearing is yet another step in the transparent journey of this popular bill."