Tester seeks support for Montana forest bill

The Great Falls Tribune

by Ledge King

WASHINGTON — Citing precedent and cost, the Obama administration says it cannot yet endorse a bill by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., that seeks to reshape Western Montana’s national forests by striking a balance among timber, recreation and environmental interests.

Agriculture Undersecretary Harris Sherman told members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Forests that he applauds the concepts laid out in the bill. But he cautioned that it would cost millions of dollars every year to implement, potentially draining resources from other forests in Montana and elsewhere. He also said the bill could undermine existing environmental review procedures and encourage other states to seek special designations as well, compromising the national scope of federal forest policy.

Administration support is often a key factor in determining whether a bill passes, and Tester said he needs the Forest Service’s support. He added that he is confident he will get the agency’s backing.

“This is the beginning of the process. … We’ll get ‘em on board,” he said after the hearing.

“It’s taking them out of their comfort zone, and when you take folks out of their comfort zone, they tend to get uncomfortable.”

Tester has spent months reaching out to the timber industry, environmental groups, recreation interests and government representatives on a bill supporters say forges a rare compromise among usually adversarial groups. The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., would preserve 677,000 acres of land as wilderness. It also would open up about 100,000 acres — out of more than 2 million acres — for timber activity in Beaverhead-Deerlodge-National Forest, the Three Rivers District of Kootenai National Forest and the Seeley Lake District of Lolo National Forest.

Additionally, the measure would make sure thousands of acres now used for recreation, such as ATVs and snowmobiles, remain that way. And it would enhance efforts to reduce forest fires that feed on overgrowth and make it easier to eradicate the pine beetle infestation that’s claimed large swaths of forest.

The measure “offers new and badly needed context for forest management,” said Tim Baker, executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association and a backer of the bill. “It forces us to look at forests as a whole. There’s enough room to meet the needs.”

By providing some certainty on access to forests, the bill also would boost Montana’s shrinking timber industry, which has seen the number of mills fall from 38 in 1988 to 10 today.

However, passions also run deep against the bill.

Matthew Koehler, representing an environmental coalition known as the Last Best Place Wildlands Campaign, ticked off several objections to the bill, notably that it would start opening up pristine forestland to loggers, an assertion Tester disputes. “This bill represents a serious threat to the American public lands legacy,” Koehler told senators.

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who chaired the panel, applauded Tester and urged the Obama administration, which he said has put much energy behind saving Wall Street, to help out the rural West.“ We now own car companies, investment houses, insurance firms,” Wyden said of federal bailouts. “How is it we can’t (generate) Forest Service support for these home-grown, collaborative efforts?”