Tester seeks review of secretive Forest Service plan

With third party oversight, Senator aims to bring openness to closed-door talks

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Senator Jon Tester today asked for an independent review of a plan negotiated behind closed doors by the U.S. Forest Service that would have a major impact on Montana.

Tester also demanded the Forest Service stop moving forward with its plan until the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) wraps up its investigation.

"We raised a flag because this was all happening without input from local folks," Tester said.  "This investigation will bring another set of eyes to the table to help us figure out the best way to move forward in a way that's good for all Montanans."

Tester started asking questions after hearing of closed-door negotiations between Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey—who oversees the Forest Service—and Plum Creek, a timber company that owns about 1.2 million acres of land in western Montana. 

Plum Creek says it plans to sell some of its land to private developers.  The Forest Service's plan would allow those developers to use publicly owned logging roads to build houses on their land.

County leaders across western Montana brought their concerns to Tester because they were left out of the negotiations, which began in August of 2006.  They asked to weigh in on the decision because more homes in forested areas means Montana taxpayers will have to foot the bill for additional infrastructure and services, including higher firefighting costs during wildfire season.

In news stories Rey claims the Forest Service is trying to "clarify" existing road easements.  But despite assurances that he would give Montanans sufficient information about a plan of this magnitude, Rey has not done so.

Today, Tester and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, sent a letter to the GAO asking for a third party review of the situation.  They also sent a letter to Rey's boss, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, asking him to halt any changes to the rule until the review is complete.

"Given the significance of the issues involved, the lack of an opportunity for public comment, or for any analyses of the environmental impacts of its proposal, we request that your office investigate the matter," Tester and Bingaman wrote to the GAO.