Collaboration behind Tester bill should propel it to passage

The Billings Gazette

by Ed Regan

Fighting over forests hasn’t worked.

If it did, Montana loggers and sawmills would have all the timber we could saw. Environmentalists might have perfectly preserved wilderness as far as the eye could see. Rural communities surrounded by forests could count on a certain and prosperous future — and worry a bit less about the next fire season.

If conflict contributed to conservation and proper forest management, we wouldn’t need new federal legislation rewarding communities that take a more collaborative approach to resource management. But it doesn’t and we do.

That is why Montana’s entire congressional delegation should join in support of Sen. Jon Tester’s innovative and exciting legislation, the “Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.”

Sen. Tester introduced that new legislation last week. It focuses on common ground staked out by former adversaries who quit fighting about things like wilderness and logging long enough to discover their strong mutual interest in overall forest stewardship.

It turns out that most of us agree on the big picture, even if we differ over some of the details. As participants in these efforts — and as veterans of the long fight over forests — we at RY Timber are convinced Montanans have far more to gain by working together for good forest management and jobs and restoration stewardship and recreation and wilderness protection than by hanging onto an all-or-nothing ideology.

We Montanans have fought fiercely but futilely for the last 30 years over how best to manage the national forests. Look where it’s gotten us: Beetles busily kill massive stands of timber while sawmills shut down, and idle workers file for unemployment.

Homes and communities face extraordinary and growing risks from wildfires fueled by unhealthy, overgrown forests.

Conflict sustains a status-quo of gridlock in the forests that benefits no one. But we can break the gridlock.

Sen. Tester’s bill incorporates collaborative agreements hammered out over several years among diverse, communitybased coalitions of industry, conservation and recreation representatives. These agreements focus specifically on long-term management of the BeaverheadDeerlodge National Forest in southwestern Montana, the Blackfoot-Clearwater Valley region northeast of Missoula, and the Yaak Valley of Kootenai National Forest in Lincoln County.

Each agreement is tailored to a specific area and circumstances, but each includes common elements: äA commitment to provide a sustainable, dependable supply of timber to local mills – in part by harvesting trees killed by insects and thinning forests where wildfire risk to communities is especially great.

äUse of “stewardship contracts” that reinvest revenue generated from timber harvest into conservation projects in the same forest.

äGreater emphasis on watershed restoration projects, such as fixing erosion problems filling trout streams with silt.

äDesignating some special backcountry acreage as federally protected wilderness.

äRespecting the rights of people who enjoy using machines like all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles.

These agreements and Tester’s bill promote good, balanced management that will serve the interests of Montana.

What’s more, the bill fosters a model for collaborative, community- based approaches to forest management sorely needed elsewhere.

In their understandable frustration with quarrelling constituents, Montana’s political leaders have for years told us that they can’t solve our disagreements over forest management — that we should hammer things out among ourselves before asking them to enact a solution.

I will confess to being a late — and initially skeptical — participant in the search for common ground. Once I sat down and began talking with my former adversaries about concrete concerns and specific places, however, my skepticism turned to optimism.

It turns out we don’t have to agree on everything and everyplace in order to agree on specific things that will make our forests healthier and communities stronger. It’s my belief that the compromises in Sen. Tester’s bill give most forest users about 90 percent of what they want.

Not bad.

Montana’s leaders asked communities to roll up their sleeves and work out their differences.

We’ve done that in the Three Rivers district of the Kootenai, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, and the Blackfoot-Clearwater. We’ve found common cause in the health of our forests, in the strength of rural economies and in the high quality of life our forests sustain.

Sen. Tester honors these community- based efforts in his legislation.

Montana’s entire congressional delegation now must work together to take the next step — passing the bill Tester introduced into law. Support from other elected leaders surely will help.

After too many years of fighting over forests, Montanans are working through their differences.

We’ve come a long way, but it’s still going to take an act of Congress to prove these collaborative efforts yield more than conflict.

Fighting over forests doesn’t work. Finding solutions together does.

Ed Regan is the resource manager of RY Timber, which has mills in Townsend and Livingston.