Tester’s forest jobs bill good fit for Montana

Bozeman Daily Chronicle

by Chris Naumann

As the 112th Congress convened, Sen. Jon Tester reintroduced the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act as Senate Bill 268. The bill was first introduced in July 2009. Sen. Tester has dedicated nearly two years crafting a piece of legislation emphasizing forest restoration, job creation, enhanced recreation and wilderness designation. Through unprecedented public involvement, repeated revisions and transparency, Tester has delivered a bill to Washington that embodies Montana’s traditional land values and current need for healthy forests.

The latest iteration of the bill includes yet another round of refinements resulting from additional public and agency feedback. At the request of the Forest Service, Tester modified the forestry mandate on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge to ensure the goals are achievable. Rather than calling for mechanical treatment of 7,000 acres a year over 10 years, the revisions stipulate forest management on 5,000 acres a year for a total of 15 years. Thus, Tester’s Forest bill has the potential to create and sustain forest jobs even farther into the future.

Contrary to some claims, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act does not significantly   reduce motorized recreation access. On the 3.3 million acre Beaverhead-Deerlodge forest, more than 5,600 miles of roads and more than 1,000 miles of trails remain designated for summer motorized use. The legislation would close less than 50 miles of these roads and   trails to vehicles — less than 1 percent.

Sen. Tester’s legislation exemplifies the new multi-use paradigm of public lands management. By designating 330,000 acres of public land as Recreation Management Areas, the bill strives “to conserve, protect and enhance the scenic, fish and wildlife, recreational, backcountry heritage and other natural resource values of the areas.” Parts of the West Pioneers, the Big Hole Mountains and the Tobacco Roots are protected as recreation areas in the current legislative version ensuring a wide variety of public access and uses.

The bill’s recent inclusion of the   Tobacco Roots Recreation Management Area is a result of the senator’s continued work with the mountain bike community. Originally, the bill proposed 5,000 acres of wilderness in the Tobacco Roots which would have ended mountain bike access up Lost Cabin. After listening to constituents who recreate in the Tobacco Roots, the senator decided to replace the small wilderness with a larger recreation area that would allow for mountain bike use.

The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act would mark the first new wilderness designation in Montana in nearly 30 years. In all, the bill proposes to protect almost 670,000 of western Montana’s most pristine backcountry as wilderness. Closest to home, Cowboy’s Heaven in the northern Madison Range will be added to the existing Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area and a portion of the Centennial Mountains will receive the highest level of protection as wilderness.

In a recent letter to Sen. Tester, Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, wrote, “The holistic package of mechanical treatments, wilderness designations, and job creation, along with the collaborative approach and hard work of the stakeholders   in Montana, and your work directly with the Forest Service, ensure that this legislation can serve as a model for similar efforts elsewhere.”

Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act is an impressive piece of legislation on many levels. First, the senator took a very progressive approach to end decades of failed single-issue legislation focusing on logging or wilderness. Second, Tester spent time on the ground in communities throughout western Montana listening to his constituents. Finally, he effectively incorporated much that he heard and learned from his fellow Montanans to create a forest bill that will benefit folks from all walks of life.

Thanks to Sen. Tester’s perseverance, thanks to groups with divergent views coming to the same table, and thanks to the willingness of all sides to listen and engage in constructive compromise, the landmark Forest Jobs and Recreation Act is poised to begin restoring Montana forests, creating on-the-land local jobs, and protecting some of the state’s wildest places. 

Chris Naumann has lived, worked and recreated in and around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for 17 years.