Senator Jon Tester's testimony on the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act

The following is Senator Jon Tester's testimony on the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, delivered today to the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests:

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for inviting me to speak on the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act of 2009.  I appreciate your consideration of this critical piece of legislation for Montana, and the country as a whole. I know you introduced a similar public lands bill in Oregon yesterday, demonstrating the critical need to address these issues in the West. 

Mr. Chairman, I want to thank the senior senator from Montana, Max Baucus, for co-sponsoring this legislation.  I also want to thank the Forest Service and folks on this committee for working with me and my staff on this bill. I look forward to continuing those efforts.

I want to acknowledge the work of the many Montanans who brought this proposal to me, many of whom have flown across the country to join us here today.  If I could take a moment and have those individuals who have come to support the bill from Montana stand up.

I would especially like to welcome to Washington the Montanans who have come to testify on this bill. To Mr. Baker of the Montana Wilderness Association and Mr. Anderson, owner of Sun Mountain Lumber, and a good friend I served with in the Montana legislature: Thank you for your continued efforts on this bill.  Mr. Koehler, I look forward to finally hearing your comments on the bill this afternoon. Commissioner McGinley, although I addressed many of Beaverhead County’s concerns while drafting this bill, I understand you still may have concerns.  I appreciate you sharing them today.

I would like to thank Governor Schweitzer and the many counties who have also submitted testimony for the record and have supported this initiative.  At this time, I would like to introduce their testimony along with the voices of many Montanans and national groups who have worked diligently on this bill.       

Senator Baucus spoke eloquently about the history of wilderness and forestry in Montana.  The contentious nature of the National Forests in Montana cannot be understated. 

Twenty years ago, fights on these issues were not just rhetorical.  Communities were deeply divided. Even death threats were issued.  But after all the fighting, no one won.

In 1988, shortly before President Reagan vetoed Montana’s wilderness bill, then Congressman Pat Williams said:

“If this bill doesn’t pass, years from now people are going to look back and say 1988 was the year when the timber industry started downhill because the congressional delegation couldn’t reach an agreement on a wilderness bill.”

Here we are, almost 22 years later, and Congressman Williams’ words could not have been more prophetic.   The mounting problems in Montana are evident, starting with our timber industry.

In 1988, Montana had 38 timber mills.  Now we have 10.   And each is struggling.

In 1988, these mills received 40 percent of their timber from federal forest lands.  Today that number is roughly 10 percent.

I do not quote these numbers to say the eighties were better.  Most of us in this room could agree the land management on our national forests then was not sustainable.  Harvest levels in Montana peaked in 1988.  That forced the pendulum to swing to where we are now, which also is not sustainable.

But as we face greater and greater climatic effects, such as drought and pine beetle, our forest products infrastructure is of greater and greater importance.  We cannot afford to lose the people who know how to manage the forests, and who know how to work in the woods. We need their skills to restore our forests, to protect the clean water that flows from them, and to protect our communities from wildfire.

And of course, we need the infrastructure, too. I have watched states like Colorado lose their infrastructure, and now they face daunting costs to perform restoration and fire mitigation. 

Last year in my state, 1.8 million acres were attacked by the Mountain Pine Beetle.  That gives us the dubious distinction of holding the record for the highest mortality by any insect, anywhere in the country.   I saw it first hand when I flew over the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest recently. It is a sea of red, pushing three-quarters of a million acres.

Bug kill is not the only unprecedented affect on the landscape.  Wildfires are burning bigger, hotter and more often now. Nationwide, from 1960 to 1999, an average of 3.6 million acres burned annually.  Since the new millennium, that number has almost doubled to more than six million acres.

And it isn’t just the aces burned that pose a danger; it is the financial cost to our communities.  The Forest Service has spent an average of $3 billion dollars a year on forest fires since 2000—almost double what it spent in an average year of the last century. 

The face of our forest is changing. How we manage our forest must change too. 

I am proud to say that not only do Montanans understand this, they are asking us to do something about it.  That’s why they asked me to carry this legislation.

I need to be clear: This legislation was made in Montana, by Montanans.

About five years ago, after years of yelling at and over each other, people started finally talking to each other.  People like Sherm Anderson and Tim Baker; and Robin King, a conservationist and Wayne Hirst, a timber accountant; and Bob Ekey of the Wilderness Society and Gordy Sanders with Pyramid Lumber. A funny thing happened in these conversations.  They realized they had more in common than ever imagined.  And that’s how three collaborative efforts in three different places of the state began:

  • In Southwest Montana on the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest;
  • In the Blackfoot River country of the Seeley District, on the Lolo National Forest;
  • And in the far northwestern corner of our state, in the Yaak, on the Three Rivers District of the Kootenai National Forest.

Each group, independently, came up with proposals that were similar. Each wanted to address the great need to manage and restore our forests.  Each attempted to resolve motorized and non-motorized conflicts on recreation lands.  And all made recommendations on designating wilderness lands.  

They each approached me with their proposals, shortly after I came to the U.S. Senate, and asked me to carry their legislation.

As my friend, the senior senator from Montana, Max Baucus, can attest, it was unthinkable to find this kind of agreement among mill owners, conservationists and snowmobile clubs 20 years ago—even five years ago.

I looked closely at all three proposals. Because they were so similar, I rolled them into one piece of legislation, honoring what each group brought me while incorporating the views of even more Montanans.

Mr. Chairman, I believe this new approach—looking at the entire forest to determine what use is appropriate where—is the right approach for national lands in Montana.

And like Secretary Vilsack, I also firmly believe working together is key to success in forest management.

The Secretary outlined his goals for the Forest Service earlier this year.  He said that collaboration, stewardship and restoration are critical tools to preserving out national forests. 

He said, and I quote, “Given the threats that our forest face today, Americans must move away from polarization.  We must work towards a shared vision—a vision that conserves our forests and the vital resources important to our survival while wisely respecting the need for a forest economy that creates jobs and vibrant rural communities.”

Ladies and gentleman, I am here to tell you this is exactly what Senate Bill 1470 aims to do. 

First, this bill aims to shift forest management away from timber volume toward forest health by directing the Forest Service to kick off landscape level stewardship projects once a year, each year, in each of the three places.

There is a reason the bill avoids mandates on board feet and instead directs the number and size of landscape-level projects. We are less interested in numbers and more interested in a holistic approach to thinking about the landscape.  That means that the goal is not just the wood taken from the land, it is stewardship.

Second, this bill recognizes that the forest should provide places to play by designating over 300,000 acres of recreation lands.

Last, the bill designates 677,000 acres of wilderness, the first such designation in Montana in more than 25 years. It resolves outstanding Wilderness Study Areas on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management ground by designating some and releasing some.  It adds to our treasured landscapes like the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness.  And, for the first time, it would designate some land in the Yaak valley as wilderness.

I suppose some of the bill’s critics will seize on the acreage numbers for mechanical treatment and the sheer size of the landscape projects. They will use historic numbers to paint a picture of forest devastation. But these historic records don't fully inform this discussion:  they show numbers of acres harvested for commercial saw logs. They are numbers of board feet removed.

I think we need to talk about acres treated, acres restored. The forest management in this bill doesn't quite wedge into the columns on the old spreadsheets. We cannot compare the old ways of yesteryear with the path we are forging.

Mr. Chairman, I am aware this bill will continue to be refined and I welcome the discussion. Through open houses, my web site, and phone calls, I've heard from thousands of Montanans on this bill.  And they’ve made some good suggestions.  Let me give you a few examples:

For the recreation areas, I intend to clarify that snowmobilers not only have access to the routes and trails they use today, but also to the overland areas they use today.

In order to protect critical grizzly habitat and to ensure the Forest Service is able to put together successful projects on the Kootenai National Forest, I will ask the agency to help me determine how best to expand the zone of where the forest and restoration activities of this bill can occur on the Kootenai.

I will ask the agency and conservationists in Montana to consider a designation other than Wilderness for the Highlands, near Butte, where occasional wilderness survival trainings occur for our men and women headed to Afghanistan. 

I also intend to continue to further discuss the Mount Jefferson area with my friends, Senator Crapo and Senator Risch.  I know there are people on both sides of the state line who have vested economic and recreational interests in this area. 

But as I’ve stated at each one of my town halls, “If we all give a little, we will all get a lot.”

We are so very fortunate as Americans that the generations that came before us thought it was wise to put aside forests for all the nation to own.  How we manage and protect them is a profound responsibility.

This legislation is a bold step forward.  But it is not without critics.  But one thing is for certain:  it brings some uncommon bedfellows together to support a new way to perform forest management.  I know we will all learn from this approach. There is nothing I’d rather do for the Forest Service than help it perform the critical work it must do to ensure we all have clean water, healthy forests, and places to hunt, camp and fish into the future. 

Let me say this: It is easy to chastise from the sidelines; it easy to use the bully pulpit to preach; it is easy to draw a line in the sand and claim the superiority of your values or narrow interests.

But it is a much more difficult step to join the conversation, reflect deeply on our common values and build a consensus to move forward.  Change is not easy.  No one expects it to be.  But not facing up to our challenges is not an option.  We address them head on.

This bill was not created overnight. The concerns people have about it here will not be fixed overnight either.  But I did not come to the U.S. Senate to shy away from hard issues.  This is what is important to the people of Montana.  They worked tirelessly toward a solution for our forests.  And so will I.

That is why I look forward to continuing to work with the Committee and the Forest Service to solve the issues—so that this bill can make a practical and lasting, common-sense impact on the ground, and on the lives of all Montanans.

I thank Chairman Wyden and the rest of the committee for your time and am happy to answer questions.