Tester pitches forest bill to packed house in Bozeman

The Associated Press

by Matt Gouras

BOZEMAN – U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, pitching his large forest bill to a packed room at the courthouse here, said it needs to both create more logging and more wilderness area in order to get enough political support to pass.

Tester said his plan will break through years of gridlock over logging by mandating Forest Service action. And it will add 600,000 acres of Montana wilderness – while sacrificing a very small percentage of motorized areas and trails, the Democrat said.

Tester had a simple answer for wilderness advocates who wanted less logging – or for those on the opposite side who don't like all the new wilderness the bill creates.

The first-term senator said each component is needed to find enough political support for the bill. Tester said the bill came from meetings between environmentalist groups and timber companies that wanted to reach a palatable compromise.

"Just a few short years ago you wouldn't have caught these groups in the same room together," Tester said. "They worked together, and I think they need to be given credit."

Tester, who met individually with members of the crowd afterward, received many thankful comments from different sides of the debate for trying something new.

But not everyone is happy with the details in the compromise.

Outfitter Tom Heintz told Tester that he doesn't like how the bill allows mountain bikes onto a trail traditionally used by horse packers. He said the fancy mountain bikes zooming down the trail "look like aliens" in the rustic backcountry.

Still, he applauds the bill's aim to log dead and dying trees in Montana, hit hard by a pine beetle infestation that is killing trees in large swaths, and to permanently set aside wilderness.

"I think that it is a well-balanced bill," Heintz said. "And I think it does what the senator says it will do."

Heintz' issue, though, exposes the many layers of disputes among forest users and advocates. The mountain bikers he complained about – who are banned from designated wilderness areas – have groused over the loss of more trails. At the same time, many of them support the bill's overall aim.

Many motorized users – dirt bikers, four-wheelers, snowmobilers and others – who feel like they lose more trails with each new U.S. Forest Service travel plan are skeptical.

And wilderness advocates with little tolerance for those motorized users or commercial loggers worry the bill gives environmentalists too little by accommodating the other interests.

And those who want more logging are skeptical that Tester's bill really is going to stop environmentalists from tying up timber sales with lawsuits, or make it easier to beat back such lawsuits.

"The fact is they will still be able to sue," Tester told the crowd. "On the other side of the coin, this is an act of Congress and that does carry weight," Tester said. "I think it very much will allow the judge to make the right decision how timber is managed in this state."

Sharon Harvey, in agriculture, told Tester afterward that she is skeptical – but supportive. She didn't vote for Tester in 2006, but promised to do so in 2012 if he can really get more logging out of the deal.

"It's a worthwhile effort, even though I'm not for more wilderness," she said. "I'm suspicious, though, put it that way. It's too good to be true. If it happens I'll come back and shake his hand and vote for him."