Time is right for Tester forest bill

The Montana Standard

Montana's remaining timber mills are struggling to survive right now, while the mountain pine beetle thrives. The dilemma demands action — to preserve what's left of the state's logging infrastructure, to harvest infested trees while they still have value, to reduce wildfire risk for communities near forest lands.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester recognized this critical need for action and responded accordingly, by introducing a bill unlike any other to come before our nation's Congress. The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act is not just a bill that mandates logging — it creates wilderness and recreation areas, too — but the sense of urgency behind it stems from the depressed state of our forests and our timber industry. Both need major transfusions.

Sensing the need for drastic measures, coalitions in three different parts of western Montana came together in recent years to attempt the difficult task of compromise. Three goals emerged: to preserve more of Montana's wild lands, to designate areas most suitable for timber harvest, and to create permanent recreation areas for mountain bikes, snowmobiles, ATV's.

Independent of one another, the coalitions approached Tester — the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership, the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project and the Three Rivers Challenge. He combined their plans into one bill and then set about gathering yet more input from Montanans on what should be in the bill and where the various borders should be drawn.

The gathering continues. Tester asked for specific feedback at Thursday's open house in Butte, just as he has at similar functions around the state. The chance for him to incorporate additional changes will come after the bill's initial hearing, which hasn't yet been scheduled.

One change outside Butte will allow limited helicopter landings in the proposed Highlands wilderness area. This exemption was made so that The Peak's Rod Alne may continue to provide high-altitude military training and is a good example of Tester's willingness to listen and respond to local interests.

The Standard's editorial board is unanimously in support of this bill. We like that it's a Montana-made solution to longstanding forest management conflicts. We like the stewardship-based approach to logging in which proceeds from timber sales will be channeled back into forest restoration projects, creating yet more jobs and improving habitat. We share Tester's hope that this unique model becomes a template for compromise solutions in other western states.

No one group is totally satisfied, which tells us the bill strikes an effective balance. Wilderness advocates want more; timber interests want more; motorized recreationists want more. Fortunately, our forests are big enough to accommodate all of these competing interests. As Mick Jagger reminds us, "You can't always get what you want," but sometimes "you get what you need." Montana needs this bill right now. It may represent our timber industry's last best hope for survival. It would also reassure the rest of the nation that Montana recognizes its duty to preserve our most beautiful, pristine places, not just for ourselves but on behalf of all Americans and future generations. A major federal wilderness bill was passed last year, but not an acre of Big Sky Country was included. If we refuse to make our own wilderness decisions, out-of-state interests will push hard to do the job for us, as Sun Mountain Lumber's Sherm Anderson said Thursday.

And although motorized recreationists have been among the most vocal critics, Tester pointed out that only 22 miles of road and 26 miles of trail would be closed in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge under the act. That's fewer miles than would be closed under the Forest Service's proposed management plan. Still open would be 5,679 miles of road and 1,057 miles of trail.

We applaud Sen. Max Baucus for recently signing on as a co-sponsor to this bill and hope that Rep. Denny Rehberg lends his support once it moves to the House. Prominent Republicans who have already endorsed it include former governor Marc Racicot and former secretary of state Bob Brown.

With Montanans united behind it, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act should have a good chance of passing, hopefully without many riders attached. We wish Tester success as he attempts to wrangle it through in the coming months. Maybe he can sneak it in right after health care and right before energy policy.