Tester unveils forest plan

The Missoulian

by Jennifer McKee

TOWNSEND – The smell of sawdust hung in the air Friday as U.S. Sen. Jon Tester stood in front of a small lumber mill and announced his plans to create almost 700,000 acres of new Montana wilderness, designate a new national recreation area and mandate timber harvests on thousands of forested acres.

Called the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, Tester's bill is the first effort to set aside new wilderness in Montana in a generation. Most of the new wilderness, more than 500,000 acres, would be in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

Yet most of the talk Friday was about all the other things Tester's bill would do, specifically requiring timber harvests, directing different kinds of timber removal – like cutting small trees for biomass generators – and creating new kinds of contracts timber companies could make with the federal government.

Tester, a Democrat, formally introduced the 80-page bill Thursday in the U.S. Senate.

“Let me state this as plainly and as clearly as I can,” he said. “Montana's forest communities face a crisis. Our forest crisis demands action and demands action now.”

Critics, notably Paul Richards, a Boulder man who ran against Tester in the 2006 U.S. Senate primary, have complained the bill was crafted in secret. Richards also said it violates a promise Tester made shortly before Richards, who was running a distant third in the three-way Democratic primary, endorsed Tester for the Democratic nomination.

Richards said Tester promised to protect all remaining roadless lands in Montana, but the bill announced Friday afternoon fails to do that.

“The Tester Logging Bill is a well-orchestrated and well-funded assault upon Montana's roadless public lands,” Richards wrote in an analysis of the bill prepared this week.

Tester told reporters the bill is the result of years of participation from two dozen organizations and everyone had to compromise to come up with an agreeable plan. No one was kept out and no one was asked to keep the work secret.

“Nobody gets everything they want in this business,” he said. “Everybody gives a little and everybody gets a little.”

Several of those representatives were on hand Friday, where a rally in support of the bill drew around 50 supporters and all spoke in support of Tester's effort, saying they think everyone got a good trade.

“What's in it for us?” said Sherm Anderson, a former Republican state senator and owner of Sun Mountain Lumber in Deer Lodge. “Everything's in it for us.”

The bill deals with three western Montana forests: the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, the Kootenai and the Lolo national forests.

On the Beaverhead-Deerlodge forest, the bill creates 505,000 acres of new wilderness areas, managed to be kept in a wild state. Motorized recreation, chain saws – even mountain bikes – are prohibited in recognized wilderness.

Additionally, the bill calls for 59,000 acres of new wilderness on nearby Bureau of Land Management lands currently being managed as de facto wilderness, while releasing 76,000 acres of de facto wilderness to multiple uses.

It creates a Big Hole National Recreation Area in southwestern Montana to be managed for all kinds of recreation, including motorized.

It requires the U.S. Forest Service to harvest logs on an average of 7,000 acres each year for 10 years. Should the agency fail to meet that goal, the bill contains a provision requiring a study to see how close the agency came to the goal and why it failed to meet it.

The bill also excludes certain trails from wilderness so they can retain their traditional use as bicycle or ATV trails. The bill also creates an area near Electric Mountain to be managed specifically for snowmobiles in the winter and bicycles in the summer.

In the Kootenai National Forest, the bill would set aside 30,000 acres of new wilderness near Roderick Mountain. It also mandates the Forest Service to harvest trees on at least 3,000 acres a year for 10 years as part of larger forest restoration projects slated for at least 50,000 acres.

Finally, on the Lolo National Forest, the plan sets aside 87,000 acres of new wilderness adjoining the existing Bob Marshall and Mission Mountains wilderness areas.

Owners and managers for lumber mills from Seeley Lake to Deer Lodge were part of the group that helped craft the bill. Many said they wanted some kind of guarantees that trees would be available for harvest.

Bruce Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, one of the groups involved in the bill, said in an interview this week, Tester's bill creates a new kind of relationship between timber companies and the Forest Service.

Farling said timber contracts envisioned in Tester's bill won't work like old ones. Instead of companies bidding for logs and cutting them down, Tester's bill would create stewardship contracts with companies. Under these contracts, Farling said, a timber company would bid not just for logs, but also to conduct other kinds of necessary forest improvements, like fixing washed-out culverts damaging trout streams. Such work would only happen on previously disturbed lands.

Ed Regan, resource manager for RY Timber, where Tester unveiled the bill, said the kind of timber harvests the bill envisions are also not like traditional logging.

Because so much of Montana's southwestern forests are in the epicenter of a historic pine bark beetle epidemic, a lot of what Regan envisions are thinning projects to both remove dead trees and give the surviving trees a chance to fend off the beetles on their own.

Regan said the harvests called for in Tester's bill include thinning projects that remove smaller trees to be used in a biomass generator or rendered into pulp for cardboard boxes. He also said many beetle-killed trees will have to go and those trees have commercial value.

“Right now, about 90 percent of the logs we (process) are beetle kill,” Regan said.

Indeed, Tester told reporters the enormity of Montana's beetle infestation helped play a role in bringing longtime forest foes together to help write the bill and will play a role in getting the bill the passed.

“We get one lightning strike and a big wind and we're in trouble,” he said.

Farling said Tester's bill created a new kind of partnership between groups like his who want to preserve resources and companies like Regan's who rely on harvesting resources to stay in business. It's a marriage, Farling said, that people have been looking for for a long time.

“There is a yearning for this type of approach out there,” he said. “People are really tired of the shouting.”
Tester's Friday announcement is only a first step in the process of becoming law. First, the bill must survive the Senate, before moving to the House. Democrats hold majorities in both, but Tester said he hoped Republicans would support the plan, too. He said he hadn't yet discussed the plan with Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg.

Regan expressed confidence.

“I think, ultimately, this is going to succeed,” he said. “I'll go a step further. I think this will become a model that will be used nationwide for breaking gridlock in forest planning around the country.”

Among the other groups involved in working out the deal include the Montana Wilderness Association, Montana and National Wildlife federations, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Wilderness Society, Troy Snowmobile Club, Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake, Roseburg Forest Products in Missoula, Sun Mountain Lumber in Deer Lodge and Kootenai Ridge Riders ATV Club.

A lone protester parked his flatbed pickup truck near the entrance to the rally. The vehicle was festooned with balloons and handwritten signs critical of Tester.