Only a balanced forest bill will fly

The Billings Gazette

by Editorial

Since Sen. Jon Tester introduced his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act in July, it has been praised as the first legislation in two decades to bring Montana wilderness advocates and logging advocates together. It also has been criticized by people on both sides of the public-lands debate who want more or less than the proposal would provide.

The bill, which deals exclusively with portions of national forests in Western Montana, had a Senate Energy Committee hearing earlier this month.

This week, Denny Rehberg announced that he will hold a series of public meetings in five Western Montana towns next week to find out what Montanans think of Tester’s bill. The state’s lone U.S. representative said he hasn’t made up his mind on that Senate bill and may introduce his own bill.
Talking to constituents
It’s important for members of Montana’s congressional delegation to communicate with their constituents. Tester held nine public meetings before introducing the legislation, which he said is the result of years of comments from industry, environmentalists and local governments. Tester has said that many of the ideas in his bill were fashioned in negotiations that began between various interest groups even before he was elected to the U.S. Senate.

If the amount of public land the legislation designates for logging were reduced as some critics want or the wilderness designation was cut as other critics want, would this bill still be viable?

At the Senate hearing, Tester posed that question to a conservationist and a sawmill operator who both supported his bill. Their answer was unequivocal: “You split this bill up and neither will support it,” Tester said in a recent interview with The Gazette.

Representatives of the U.S. Forest Service testified to their concerns about Tester’s bill setting bad precedents because of the details it prescribes for managing specific lands in national forests. For example, it would require seven times as much logging annually on the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest as has been average.

“I think this is a good precedent,” Tester told The Gazette. “Our forests have changed and our policy hasn’t changed. … We’ve got dead forests that are going to burn. The legislation could reduce firefighting costs by treating the forests for hazardous-fuel reduction.”
A few revisions
Tester said he is proposing a few revisions to his original bill. For example, areas that it designates for snowmobile use would be open to snowmobiles in the same way they are now, instead of restricting the machines to trails.

“The folks who have been fighting this stuff for many years haven’t solved anything,” Tester said. “This is a reasonable bill — an opportunity to do something in the forest and help the Forest Service be successful. I also think the wilderness component is reasonable.”

The next step for the forest bill is Energy Committee action to amend, approve or reject the bill. Tester said he will push for committee to take it up early in the new year.

Public-lands legislation is always imbued with controversy in Montana. Nobody will get everything he wants. Only with broad public support and strong congressional leadership for a balanced compromise will Montana ever get a forest bill that becomes law.