The first questioner at Sen. Jon Tester's Monday public forum in Missoula wanted to know how the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act was coming along.
"My wife and I just drove over through Lincoln, and there's crystal-clear evidence we need to manage in a different way," Tester said of the beetle-killed acres of forest. "We need to give the Forest Service some different tools to work with."
But Tester also needs a committee date to work with if his bill stands a chance of becoming law this year. After a flurry of anticipation earlier in August, Congress recessed without bringing S. 1470 before the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
"We're 95 percent there to get it out of committee," Tester said. "It still revolves around the cut language. There's going to be mechanical treatment in that bill - there's got to be."
Tester has hit the most opposition from fellow senators and some Montanans on his proposed mandate of harvesting at least 10,000 acres a year from three national forests in Montana. Committee staff sent him a revised draft in June with the logging mandate removed.
Tester sent back a new version with the cut restored, but he stretched it from 10 years to 15 and incorporated the Forest Service's new watershed-level environmental analysis to pick harvest sites instead of a more cumbersome landscape-level environmental impact statement.
Plans to create 670,000 acres of new federal wilderness and another 336,000 acres of mixed-use recreation areas remain unchanged.
Tester said his new draft remains the one under consideration. He added it emphasizes taking timber from roaded areas where wildfire danger threatens houses and communities, while staying away from more pristine roadless areas in national forests.
Tester spokeswoman Andrea Helling said she hoped the bill would get its hearing soon after the Senate reconvenes in mid-September. Assuming it clears the committee, it could go to the full Senate as a stand-alone bill, be amended into related forest management legislation or rolled into an omnibus public lands bill.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.