Tester revising forest bill

The Associated Press

by Matt Gouras

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said Friday that he is making several changes to a plan that increases both logging and wilderness area in Montana, hoping to ease fears of those who worry the logging won’t really take place.

The Democrat said that comments made since the bill’s introduction last summer prompted the revisions. Tester now believes he will be able to push the sweeping forest legislation through the Senate sometime this year.

“Absolutely, unequivocally, doing nothing is not an option,” Tester said.

The bill would still create more than 600,000 acres of wilderness, mostly in southwestern Montana’s Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, and mandate roughly 100,000 acres of logging in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge.

But the revised plan offered Friday contains provisions that would allow the logging mandate to continue past 15 years. That change is aimed at critics who said the wilderness would last forever — while the logging mandate would end after a relatively short period of time.

The senator accepted plenty of other suggestions, but not one from Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who is asking that creation of wilderness areas would be phased-in as logging actually occurs. Rehberg said the change was likely needed for his support.

Tester said there is no way he could get that provision through the U.S. Senate. He said he took the suggestion this week to the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.

“He said the bill would be dead on arrival,” Tester said.

Instead, Tester offered several other ideas aimed at making sure the logging got done as his bill mandates.

The revisions would send more legal appeals of logging projects to mediation, establish an independent panel to evaluate the effectiveness of the logging and recommend its extension past 15 years, and add language allowing a judge to also weigh the long-term harm of not logging.

“I think when they see how this bill works, they will see it has real potential for forest management,” Tester said.

Other revisions include a designation other than wilderness for the Highlands area near Butte to allow military training, stronger forest restoration measures, and other specific adjustments to address issues brought up by mountain bikers, motorized users and the agriculture community.

Rehberg said he will be looking at Tester’s revised proposal.

“Although Jon hasn’t sent me a copy of his changes yet, I look forward to our discussion at one of the proposed dates and public venues I suggested earlier this week,” he said in a statement. “I hope the revisions address the concerns I heard during my 22 public meetings and result in legislation that can be supported not only in Washington D.C., but more importantly in Montana.”

Tester, who already has the backing of fellow Democrats U.S. Sen. Max Baucus and Gov. Brian Schweitzer, said he will still be seeking Rehberg’s support.

“We just need to get our schedules together so we can meet,” Tester said. “I want to get a bill that is passed. I think he wants to get a bill that is passed.”