Sen. Tester to reintroduce forest bill, seek more support


by Rob Chaney

Sen. Jon Tester plans to reintroduce his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act this year with no changes, but hopes to bring more Montanans to its support.

"The work doesn't get done on the far left and it doesn't get done on the far right," Tester said during a meeting with the Missoulian editorial board on Monday. "It gets done in the middle. If you look at the folks opposing this bill, they're the extremes. Quite frankly, extremists are extremists and I don't really care. If they're willing to become less ideologues and more realists, then come on board."

Tester's bill would require at least 100,000 acres of logging and forest thinning over 15 years in two national forests. It would also designate about 660,000 acres of new wilderness and 330,000 acres of recreation areas.

The bill struggled through the Senate last year, and did not make it out of committee. But the Senate Democratic leadership agreed to put it in an omnibus appropriations bill designed to complete a wide swath of land policy issues that had languished over the session. That bill died without making it to the Senate floor during the lame-duck session before Christmas.

Republicans now have a majority in the House of Representatives and a larger minority in the Senate. But Tester said he didn't worry about the change in political numbers.

"We've had our struggles with both sides of the aisle," he said. "There's a lot of people in the Senate who'd put a hold on a straight wilderness bill, and a lot of people in the Senate who'd put a hold on a straight forest management bill. It points up the fact the system is broken."

While Tester no longer touts his bill as a way to improve the U.S. Forest Service's management of the national forests, he said it should be considered a test of a new way of local, collaborative forest operations.

"It doesn't mean the Forest Service is broken," he said. "It means they need some different tools. So people can say we're going to do some forest management here, some recreation there, some wilderness here, put some people back to work over here, and make sure we don't lose our mills like has happened in Colorado. So we've got somebody to help manage our forests."

The bill text remains on Tester's Senate website for people to read and comment on. It has won support from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (who oversees the Forest Service) as well as former Republican Gov. Marc Racicot and Democratic Rep. Pat Williams.

Tester said he is finished worrying about critics who complained the bill was made in secret – or that their input wasn't included.

"I don't plan on waging a negative or counter-campaign on this," he said. "I think it's a very positive bill. The folks who don't want to log any trees are there, and the folks who absolutely don't want another acre of wilderness are over here. But we've had a lot of other folks in the middle. You don't necessarily have to have everybody on board."