Tester announces changes to Montana jobs, wilderness bill
Reacting to both criticism and constructive advice, Sen. Jon Tester revealed a thick list of changes to his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act during a visit to Missoula on Friday.
In all, Tester proposed 21 changes to S. 1470. Many involve assurances that 10,000 acres a year of timber would be cut, with proper scientific monitoring and protection from excessive litigation.
Last month, U.S. Forest Service officials complained that the acreage might be an unsustainable amount of logging. Tester responded that the agency needs to change the way it manages timber.
"What we're talking about doing is changing the landscape so the Forest Service can manage that forest better. It's changed in the last 30 years. We're giving them some tools so they can change with that. Ultimately I still feel, in a multimillion-acre forest with tens of thousands of acres in the wildland-urban interface, they can easily find the acres that need to be cut."
To further earn Forest Service support, Tester proposed making his bill a pilot project that wouldn't automatically apply to other national forests outside Montana. But he predicted the bill's management style would save the agency money in the long run – by way of reduced firefighting costs and better timber production. And he noted that some other members of Congress are considering similar legislation for their states.
S. 1470 combines three locally designed projects from the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Lolo and Kootenai national forests. Committees of lumber mill owners, environmentalists and recreation advocates proposed compromise mixtures for each area. They included timber cuts, wilderness designations, backcountry repair or improvement work, and recreation areas.
Overall, the deal would designate 670,000 acres of new wilderness, in addition to the 10,000 acres of annual timber harvest over 10 years. It would be the first major break in Montana's wildland management in more than two decades.
Litigation also got some makeovers in the amendments released Friday. The bill now calls for mediation of disputes before anyone can go to court. And it applies a "balance of harms" rule to judges, who must consider not only the short-term damage of a project but the long-term damage of doing nothing.
In the recreation department, Tester clarified that snowmobiles aren't restricted to trails or roads, and therefore can continue to travel in areas they're using currently. He moved some wilderness boundaries that criss-crossed the Continental Divide Trail, so mountain bikers could use the route without violating the prohibition on wheeled vehicles. And he dropped a plan to allow motorized access of Tendoy Lake in the East Pioneer Mountains, after getting confirmation the route was falling apart and would create management headaches for the rest of the wilderness area.
One high-profile change switches the Highlands area near Butte from wilderness to "special management area" designation. That's partially to allow military contractors to land helicopters there for special forces training.
"I'm looking at more than just wilderness in this case," Tester said. "This landscape is similar to Afghanistan. And they use it for training of troops. I didn't want to take that tool away from them."
The change would also allow motorized access to maintain water lines that serve Butte. A special management area is different from a recreation area, according to Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy. It has most of the strict standards of wilderness, with a few specific exceptions. And it doesn't allow the more wide-open motorized use of a recreation area.
Because the bill is already introduced, Tester will have to get the changes inserted as amendments to his own legislation. He also acknowledged the bill's complicated nature could meet resistance from the committee staff, which sometimes gives low priority to projects involving lots of research and refining.
Tester said some ideas simply wouldn't fly, including a proposal by Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg for "trigger language" linking wilderness designations to job creation.
"I remember listening to that language when I was sitting on a tractor in 1980," Tester said. "The fact is, the trigger and hard-release language is exactly why we haven't been able to manage our forests so far. If trigger language gets in this bill, the bill's dead. It's like a lightning rod – it won't work."
He added that the timber industry representatives who worked with him drafting the bill were fine without the triggers. Rehberg and Tester have been trying to schedule a face-to-face meeting to work out differences on the bill. Although Sen. Max Baucus has co-sponsored the legislation, Rehberg has so far declined to support it.
"He (Rehberg) recognizes that doing nothing is not an option," Tester said. "I look forward to meeting with him, discussing the bill and I look forward to his support of the bill."