Tester’s forest bill reflects state’s common sense

The Missoulian

by Chris Wood

Sometimes, it takes awhile for good ideas from the American heartland to break through the Washington, D.C., beltway. But one idea has arrived in D.C. from Montana, and its time has come: Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.

The bill mixes Montana’s ingenuity and hard work in a plan that will protect some of the state’s most pristine waters and watersheds, while putting people to work reducing fire danger and making forests healthier.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently laid out a prescription for the Forest Service. Namely, he pointed out a need for “a shared vision built on collaboration that will move us beyond the timber wars of the past.”

That notion of collaborative stewardship is exactly what brought together timber companies, ranchers, sportsmen, motorized users, environmentalists and others in support of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. This bill will protect more than 670,000 acres of wilderness. It will protect crucial sources of clean, cold water as well as essential habitats for wild and native trout in the headwaters of some of the nation’s most storied rivers. The bill will help secure habitats for elk and mountain goat and other species that benefit from undisturbed habitats.

For two decades, Montana’s publicly owned forests have been mired in a stalemate that fails to protect or restore fish and wildlife. Not a single acre of wilderness has been designated in the state in 25 years. Hundreds of impassible culverts on the forests fragment fish habitat. Dense networks of obsolete roads restrict elk security and movement and dump sediment in streams.

While protecting Montana’s water and wildlife, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act will also create family wage jobs for local communities by giving recession-affected Montana loggers an opportunity to regain their footing through selective logging. The bill requires that 7,000 acres of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest be “mechanically treated” every year.

U.S. Forest Service professionals will determine the appropriate cutting units based on science and law. Very little logging will occur in many of those areas, in others more will. No one is advocating 7,000 acres of clear-cuts. Most important, the focus will be on areas already accessible by road – not pristine, natural backcountry.

For example, within the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, at least 150,000 acres of national forest adjoin private lands – the interface between national forests and private homes and communities. The mechanical treatment requirements of the bill could be accomplished simply by protecting human communities from fire.

None of the supporters of

S1470 believe it an appropriate prescription for all national forests, but given the “paralysis,” as former head of the agency put it, that the Forest Service finds itself in, we should be open to all good ideas that help to bring people together for the betterment of the lands and waters that sustain us all.

The nation needs a strong Forest Service. We need its extraordinary knowledge and leadership to help human communities and fish and wildlife resources adapt to a changing climate. The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act is not a cure-all for what ails the Forest Service. But it is a start. The Obama administration should be open to fostering within the agency the type of collaboration that led to the development of the bill.

The bill could have a transformative effect within the Forest Service. By sanctioning this effort, Congress can send a clear message to the Forest Service that encourages the agency to lead, promote, or otherwise enable collaborative stewardship within the forest planning process.

President Theodore Roosevelt once defined conservation as the application of “common sense to common problems for the common good.” That definition is the motivating factor behind the Forest Jobs and Recreation Bill. The bill is a demonstration of what can happen when people focus on the values that bind, rather than the distinctions that divide.

Chris Wood is the chief operating officer of Trout Unlimited. Previously, he served as the senior policy and communications advisor to the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service.