Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester renewed their push for conservation and logging bills on Tuesday at a wide-ranging Senate Public Lands, Forests and Mining Subcommittee hearing.
Baucus made an impassioned plea for passage of his Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act (S.364), which would manage much of the public land between Augusta and Browning for recreation, grazing and motorized access, while designating 67,000 acres of new wilderness on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
Tester sought support for his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act (S.37), calling it a way “to break through the gridlock that’s characterized forest management over the years.” The bill would mandate logging and thinning on at least 100,000 acres of national forest land over 15 years while designating 666,000 acres of new wilderness, 289,000 acres of recreation areas and 80,000 acres of special-use areas.
Both senators also backed Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s S.1300, which would reauthorize the U.S. Forest Service’s stewardship contracting authority. Stewardship contracts allow the agency to essentially barter timber harvests for restoration and maintenance work on national forest lands.
“Montanans want to keep the Front the way it is,” Baucus said, adding the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act would help control invasive weeds while protecting traditional access for sportsmen, motorized use and ranching. He joked that the bill’s drafting involved draining both coffee cups and beer taps as it gathered support.
Tester said his bill was the tool the Forest Service needed to both support the timber industry and settle decades-old wilderness debates.
“We need to break through the gridlock that’s characterized forest management over the years,” Tester told the committee. Mandating forest harvest levels would ensure Montana’s lumber infrastructure didn’t collapse while adding wilderness would boost the region’s recreation economy, he said.
Deputy Forest Service Chief Leslie Weldon offered strong praise for both bills, although she said the agency still wanted to work on some changes to Tester’s legislation.
In her testimony, Weldon said the Forest Service remains concerned about Congress providing specific forest management directives and harvest targets. She also asked for more work defining what Tester meant by “mechanical treatment” in forest management, as well as how he sees the agency handling reporting requirements and other priorities elsewhere in the country.
Nevertheless, Tester staff members said they were pleased with the increasingly positive response the Forest Service gave the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. When it debuted in 2010, Forest Service officials offered numerous objections to the bill.
In Montana, Tester bill supporter Sherm Anderson of Sun Mountain Lumber said the act’s timber mandate on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest would just about meet the Deer Lodge mill’s annual timber requirement. The bill would ask that forest to produce at least 4,600 acres of timber a year for harvest, and Sun Mountain harvests about 7,142 acres a year.
“So far we’re able to get by, but in order to do so, we’re bringing wood out of southern Idaho off Idaho state lands,” Anderson said. “And we’re bringing wood out of Wyoming and Colorado by rail. They’ve got no infrastructure left in Colorado, so they’ve got no place to go.”
Baucus and Tester also supported a bill reauthorizing the Army National Guard’s use of the Limestone Hills as a training ground. But Army officials raised concerns about the bill’s provision allowing more mining in the area.