Forest, jobs bill will help employment, wilderness

The MissouliannThe Helena Independent RecordnThe Montana StandardnThe Bozeman Daily Chronicle

by Senator Jon Tester

The numbers are painful.

Last year, 1,700 Montanans lost jobs in our timber industry. Timber harvests across our state plummeted a staggering 40 percent. Several mills – including Montana’s largest – boarded up.

If we do nothing, Montanans who work in the woods will get hit even harder. It’s an industry that today directly employs just over 7,000 Montanans. Thousands more rely on the industry indirectly.

If we do nothing – or if we let partisan politics trump the ideas of Montanans who worked together for years on a common sense solution – all those jobs will be on the rocks.

In order to put Montanans back to work in the woods, we need to rethink the way we manage the woods. We need a 21st century plan.

That’s exactly why I introduced the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.

It’s clear the way we manage our forests now isn’t working. It’s clear because too many people have lost their jobs – the people who know how to run chain saws in the woods and bandsaws in the mills. Dead trees cover countless acres across Montana, just one cigarette flick away from catastrophic wildfire.

I wrote the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act after working closely with timber companies, conservationists, outdoorsmen and motor sports enthusiasts. For years, they fought each other over how to manage our public forests.

Then they realized that saying “no” wasn’t getting them anywhere. So they put their differences aside and sat down together to work out a plan. That doesn’t happen very often these days. After listening to many other Montanans, public officials and organizations, I made my own adjustments to that plan.

That plan, now a bill before Congress, mandates timber harvest. It immediately creates permanent recreation areas. It offers incentives to use forest biomass – wood chips and small trees – for heat and energy. And it safeguards for our kids and grandkids some of Montana’s best places to hunt, fish and camp.

Without this bill, Montana will lose the loggers, the millers, the truckers and the infrastructure needed to keep our timber industry a strong part of Montana’s outdoor heritage. And if we lose our timber industry, we lose our ability to manage our forests and to protect our communities from catastrophic wildfire.

Over the past year, I’ve held public listening sessions across the state. I received feedback from thousands of Montanans. And in the coming weeks, I will propose significant changes to the bill based on that feedback.

But there are changes to the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act I cannot make – ones that will keep the bill from passing Congress. Some ideas have been kicking around for 20 years and done nothing but to pit Montanans against each other. We need new ideas.

The folks whose livelihoods are at stake have been working on these new ideas for many years. They know what’s workable and what isn’t.

The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act isn’t going to win unanimous support from everyone. No legislation ever has. No legislation ever will.

But here’s what the bill does: It strikes a very smart balance of fresh ideas. It will save jobs. It will create jobs. And it will improve the health of our forests.

There’s plenty of room in Montana’s forests for everyone, but only if we work together.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is a third-generation farmer from Big Sandy.