PUBLIC LANDS: Tester's wilderness, logging bill draws administration praise

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PUBLIC LANDS: Tester's wilderness, logging bill draws administration praise  (05/26/2011)

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

A Montana senator's proposal to break the state's quarter-decade wilderness drought while boosting supplies for the region's ailing timber industry drew cautious praise yesterday from the Obama administration and a surprise endorsement from the leader of a ranching group.

Sen. Jon Tester's (D-Mont.) bill to create nearly 700,000 acres of new wilderness while requiring the Forest Service to thin at least 100,000 acres, also drew the support of Public Lands and Forests Subcommittee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sherman Anderson, the owner of a lumber company in Deer Lodge, Mont.

Tester, who faces a tough re-election bid next year, said the measure would help solve decades of battles among mill owners, loggers, conservationists and outdoorsmen over management of the state's vast federal lands. Million of acres of forests have become infested by the mountain pine beetle and are ticking time bombs for wildfires, Tester said.

A key provision in the bill would require the Forest Service to mechanically treat at least 100,000 acres of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai national forests over the next 15 years, a mandate that drew initial concern from the Obama administration before later being deemed "ambitious, but sustainable and achievable."

The proposal also would require the Forest Service to carry out large watershed and forest restoration projects each year over the next 15 years.

While the timber mandate continues to draw opposition from Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and some in the environmental community, Tester said the bill would put people to work by creating jobs in timber and restoration projects.

In addition, it would make beetle-infested forests healthier and lower the risk of catastrophic wildfire, he said.

"I know that the mandate in this bill has made some of my colleagues uncomfortable," he said. "But I can't see why Congress wouldn't want to give the [Forest Service] the full backing of the American people to say 'We want you to do good work. Go forth and do good work creating jobs and restoring our national forests.' Because the status quo is not allowing that to happen."

Tester's bill also would allow an additional 336,000 acres of special management areas to be used for motorized recreation and would release seven "wilderness study areas" into multiple uses including potential timber management or motorized recreation.

Harris Sherman, the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for natural resources and environment, said his agency still has concerns that the bill would set a dangerous precedent by legislating forest management on a state-specific basis. But he noted the pressing need for restoration to quell the effects of the bark beetle in Montana and other states.

"We are very supportive of the concepts and the goals in this bill," he said. "The bill will bring important jobs to Montana. It will allow significant mechanical and restoration work to be done. And it will bring new land into our national wilderness systems."

Sherman also raised technical concerns with the bill's definition of "mechanical treatment" and said he would like to see more flexibility on the scientific assumptions about road densities and riparian protections.

In a surprise to some, the bill was roundly supported by Wally Congdon, a director for the Montana Cattlemen's Association who was invited to testify by committee Republicans.

"It's a heck of a deal," Congdon said of the bill, adding that it provides infrastructure not only for timber harvests, but also recreation, local economies and outfitters. He said the bill successfully balances multiple uses on public lands like no other he had seen. "I think overall, you couldn't have done a better job," he told Tester.

While testimony at the hearing was overwhelmingly supportive, groups on both sides of the wilderness debate dug trenches of opposition yesterday. Some said the bill protects too much lands, while others called it an unacceptable compromise with special interests.

"While the bill is improved in some areas ... [it] still stands for the unacceptable proposition that local politicians should largely dictate management of national public lands," said George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch. "Its politically mandated logging levels, off-road vehicle and snowmachine playgrounds, and similar mandates, flies in the face of almost a century of public lands policy evolution that has made America's public lands protections the envy of conservationists around the world."

Matthew Koehler, executive director of the WildWest Institute, pointed to a particular exchange at the hearing in which Tester promised Idaho Sen. Jim Risch (R) that he would drop a provision for wilderness at Mount Jefferson near the Idaho-Montana border in exchange for his vote.

"That just came across as some sleazy horse-trading," Koehler said.

Other opponents include Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), who is seeking Tester's Senate seat in 2012. The proposal may play a role in the race as the two debate over natural resources policy. In December, Rehberg organized a tele-town hall meeting to fire up opposition to the bill (E&E Daily, Feb. 4).  

And miners, some ranchers and off-highway vehicle users and mountain bikers -- who spoke out against the bill during a conference call yesterday -- also dislike the bill.

On balance, the environmental community in Montana is supportive of Tester's bill, calling it a sustainable compromise of diverse groups including Montana Conservation Voters, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the United Steel Workers, the Missoula Chamber of Commerce and the Missoula Central Labor Council, in addition to timber companies.

"The bottom line is that this has been a collaborative effort," Tester told reporters after the hearing. "Those who have wanted to participate have. Those who have come in at the end, for political reasons or other, you know, will put their arguments up. This is a good faith effort to meet the needs of Montana and meet the needs of the forests."

Whether Tester will be able to persuade Bingaman to support the bill remains to be seen. Tester said he had spoken with the New Mexico senator only briefly about the bill after extensive talks with him in the previous Congress.

The proposal received a hearing in December 2009 but was not marked up by the committee. Tester, who is a member of the Appropriations Committee, was able to include the measure in a short-lived funding bill last December that died amid partisan opposition to spending levels.

"I can't answer where he's at at this point in time, but we will have that discussion of course," Tester said of Bingaman, who has introduced a pair of wilderness bills of his own that he would like to see passed before he retires at the end of his term.

Wyden, the chairman of the subcommittee, spoke glowingly about Tester's bill, comparing it to his proposal to mandate timber harvests across millions of acres of eastern Oregon forests.

"I am very supportive of what he's trying to do," he told E&E Daily after the hearing. "He, like me, is trying to bring folks together, and these are the two projects that will give us a chance on a demonstration basis to try some fresh approaches."

A spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the ranking member on the committee, said she had not taken a position on the bill.


This article appeared in the E&E News