Tester's Forest Bill Could Redefine Western Politics

Roll Call

by Robert Saldin

Although Montana's senior Senator, Max Baucus (D), has garnered more headlines recently for his key role in health care reform, the Treasure State's junior Senator is touting a bill of his own that could redefine public land policy, one of the West's longest standing and most contentious political disputes.

Robert Saldin, Special to Roll Call When Sen. Jon Tester's (D) Forest Jobs and Recreation Act got its first hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests last week, a previously unimaginable coalition of environmentalists and their traditional opponents in the timber industry voiced support for legislation that would signal in new era in Western politics.

The compromise bill mandates limited logging designed to keep the struggling timber industry afloat while also designating 670,000 acres of new wilderness in Montana. But the lack of the word "wilderness" in the bill's title is not a mistake. That's because wilderness has long been the third rail of Mountain West politics.

The West's wilderness wars began in 1964 with passage of the Wilderness Act. The law designated 9.1 million acres, mostly in the West, as official wilderness. Such classification offers the strictest limitations on human activity – roads are prohibited and motorized use isn't allowed. The law also laid out a process by which more than 60 million acres of other potentially wilderness-suitable lands were identified. Out of this group, Congress was then supposed to add suitable areas into the wilderness system and release others back to "multiple use" status, opening the possibility for motorized recreation and private resource extraction. All expectations were that this process would play out within several years.

But 45 years later, many of these lands remain in political purgatory. Wilderness advocates' early successes provoked a backlash, known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, among Westerners who made their living off the land. Meanwhile, environmentalists dug in their heels, seeking to add as much wilderness as possible. A stalemate resulted. In Montana no new wilderness has been declared since 1983. To varying degrees, other Western states have endured similar impasses.

Only recently have significant elements of both camps realized that this continued standoff has produced losses for each side. For wilderness opponents, former President Bill Clinton's use of executive power to achieve conservation demonstrated that severe limitations on land use can be imposed even without new wilderness. In Montana, it also became increasingly clear that the timber industry was suffering because of the failure to resolve the status of public lands. Lumber companies were unable to make future projections in the face of uncertainty and Clinton's various restrictions. Mills shut down. Just this week, a mill near Missoula announced it was closing, leaving only four active mills in the state. Failure to pass wilderness bills hurt the industry because such legislation also releases areas unsuitable for wilderness to multiple use, including resource extraction.

Similarly, environmentalists realized that holding out for total victory was leading to a decline in forest health. Uncertainty for the timber industry encouraged unsound logging practices in an effort to pull as many logs as possible in the shortest amount of time, lest the government step in and stop all activity. President George W. Bush began overturning Clinton's orders. Some environmentalists also came to recognize that selective logging targeted at preventing massive fires through forest thinning and removal of beetle-killed trees helps maintain healthy ecosystems. Additionally, for years recreational vehicle use had been expanding into new territory, thereby compromising certain lands' suitability for wilderness.

These factors pushed longtime opponents into locally based collaborative efforts around Montana and throughout the West. Tester's bill combines three such proposals. It also has the potential of offering a road map for resolving the long-standing and often fierce conflict that has marked public land policy in the West.

But not everyone is ready for the negotiating table. Here in Missoula, a liberal college town and home to a plethora of wilderness advocacy groups, opinion is mixed. The Alliance for the Wild Rockies, for instance, opposes the legislation, preferring to hold out for a much larger, multistate proposal to designate 24 million acres of new wilderness. In more conservative areas of Montana, motorized recreation users oppose the bill because it would restrict snowmobile and ATV use.

The question now is whether the middle ground established by mainstream environmental groups and their new logging allies can hold up against dissident environmentalists on the far left and wilderness opponents on the far right. Recent history suggests the bill faces long odds, but Tester is betting that Montana is ready for closure.

Robert Saldin is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Montana and a Lone Mountain fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center.