Missoula panel discusses tweaks to Tester's wilderness, jobs bill
The first major Montana wildlands legislation in decades hopes to clean up a lot of the loose ends created by the state's deadlocked wilderness debate.
"This is the first meeting in 30 years where there weren't pickets outside and 400 people in the room," former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams told about 100 people at a panel discussion of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act on Thursday evening. Instead, the largely supportive crowd came to hear reasons why Tester's bill would finally improve the state's logging industry and its treasured backcountry.
S. 1470 combines three grass-roots projects in the Yaak, Blackfoot-Clearwater and Beaverhead-Deerlodge regions of western Montana. All three were separate efforts, but shared a common style of forging compromises among timber mills, environmentalists and recreation advocates.
Tester's bill would create about 670,000 acres of new wilderness and 300,000 acres of mixed-use recreation area. It would also designate thousands of acres of forest as "suitable for timber harvest," including about 900,000 acres of inventoried roadless land.
Several issues remain fuzzy. For example, the crucial term "mechanical treatment" still doesn't have a solid definition. S. 1470 requires 100,000 acres of mechanical treatment over the next 10 years.
Tester staff member Tracy Stone-Manning said the term was going to get more refinement as the bill works its way through Congress. But right now, she said it basically means "someone doing work in the woods with a tool that isn't a match." That includes everything from commercial logging to brush thinning.
Another audience member asked how the U.S. Forest Service can churn out the necessary environmental research for such large projects every year, when smaller projects typically take three to five years of study.
"We're very glad to have that conversation," Stone-Manning said. Tester's staff has been in discussions with the Forest Service on what it will take to speed up the work – whether personnel, money, analysis methods or conflicting duties are the stumbling block.
Pyramid Mountain Lumber vice president Loren Rose added that the Forest Service has spent many years as a reactionary agency, pushed about by things like political changes, bug infestations and recreation trends. Tester's bill should encourage the agency to start "managing toward something," he said.
Paying for all the work was an issue for bill critic Matthew Koehler of the Last Best Place Wildlands Campaign. He questioned how road reclamation and forest health work would get done when timber prices are bottoming out and the national economy has crushed the housing industry. Would the taxpayers end up paying for the work, and if so, how much would it cost?
Stone-Manning replied that the latest Forest Service budget had new money aimed at this kind of landscape-scale forest work, and the bill's projects would likely get some of it. Other legislation has already allocated money for forest restoration work and the Blackfoot-Clearwater part of the bill is in competition for those dollars.