Forest Service halts plans to change road rules

Agency backs down after months of pressure by Tester to involve the public

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – The U.S. Forest Service has halted controversial plans to change rules that would have altered the landscape of Western Montana without local input, Senator Jon Tester announced today.

U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, told Tester about his decision during a meeting this morning on Capitol Hill.

“The Forest Service did the right thing,” Tester said.  “From the get-go, I wanted to make sure the public had a chance to weigh in on any decisions about their public lands.  Until that happens, not moving forward is the right thing to do.”

On Monday, a timber company involved in the proposal announced it was no longer interested in pushing the plan.

Tester sounded the alarm last April, after learning that the Forest Service had been negotiating the closed-door proposal for nearly two years.  The rule change would have allowed timber companies to use publicly owned Forest Service roads for non-logging purposes.

Commissioners in several counties across Western Montana were concerned that such a change would pave the way for commercial development of timberlands and result in higher costs for counties and Montana taxpayers.

From the beginning, Tester demanded the Forest Service allow the public to weigh in on the proposed rule change.  But he said the Forest Service repeatedly “gave output and never asked for input” from the public.

With Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Tester also requested an investigation of the situation from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO).  The GAO report, released in October, said the proposal sets a precedent for all Forest Service roads in the country.

Tester said a good agreement would have withstood public scrutiny, even during the next presidential administration.  Rey, an appointee of President Bush, leaves office January 20.