Tester Stands Up For Rural Ratepayers, Presses Forest Service Chief on Unwarranted Fines on Montana ­Electric Co-op

At Senate Appropriations hearing, Tester questions Forest Service Chief Randy Moore: “How the hell did we end up here?”

U.S. Senator Jon Tester today pressed U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Randy Moore during a Senate Appropriations hearing, questioning him on the USFS’s decision to stick Vigilante Rural Cooperative, a Montana electric cooperative, with a more than $5 million bill.

Following the Deep Creek Canyon Fire, which occurred in the Helena National Forest in 2021, USFS is seeking to fine Vigilante Rural Cooperative for fire suppression costs. This decision is based on a questionable determination of fault and fails to recognize the potential for this bill to jack up costs for Montana ratepayers. Senator Tester recently called on Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to reverse the fine.

Tester began by outlining the magnitude of the fine on the operating revenue of the cooperative: “The Forest Service fined a small electric cooperative in Montana a little over $5 million for a fire in 2021. To put this in perspective, the annual operating revenue for this small cooperative is $15 million. If this isn’t crazy enough, I recently learned that there is not a process in place for the cooperative to appeal this case directly to the U.S. Forest Service.”

Tester continued to specifically note the questionable determination of fault: “While I appreciate the importance of holding folks accountable and I believe in it strongly, I can tell you the jury is still out on whether the cooperative was negligent at all. Put that together, this process seems extremely broken.”

Tester went on to outline the consequences of this fine not just on the cooperative, but on Montana ratepayers: “Chief Moore, you know very well…that fining a cooperative with a $15 million budget, one third of its revenue – a cooperative that’s been around, by the way, for 87 years – would have two outcomes. The cooperative either goes out of business, and folks lose electricity, which is pretty darn critical in the 21st century, or the cooperative has to jack up energy costs on its entire members – because cooperatives are owned by the customer – to cover the bill.”

“Given that the blame for the 2021 fire is disputable,” Tester concluded. “My question to you, Chief Moore, is how the hell did we end up here?”

Tester’s recent letter to Secretary Vilsack can be read HERE.


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