DEER LODGE - The Obama administration could support the logging mandate in Montana Sen. Jon Tester's wilderness bill as a "pilot project," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said here Saturday.
Vilsack, in a change of position for the administration, said with some changes the measure, which mandates 10,000 acres of logging every year, could be tried to see how well it works.
"We're going to continue to work with Sen. Tester to accomplish what the bill is supposed to do," Vilsack told more than 70 people. "There's a tremendous opportunity here."
Vilsack came to Deer Lodge at the request of Tester to meet with members of a partnership of logging and conservation interests whose plan shaped his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. The controversial measure would designate more than 600,000 acres of wilderness on three national forests, while also mandating that 10,000 acres be logged every year for a decade.
Tester has touted the bill as a way to end decades of fighting over logging and wilderness protection and believes it will help the U.S. Forest Service restore forested areas that are dying of beetle infestations. And he's said the bill will help struggling timber mills that need a supply of timber to survive.
But the Madison and Beaverhead county commissioners, as well as multiple-use and some environmental groups, strongly oppose the bill. Commissioners say they'll get the majority of the wilderness, yet the bill does nothing to guarantee that any trees will be cut because the logging is still subject to lawsuits. They say the bill represents two narrow interests while ignoring the concerns of ranchers, motorized users and counties.
Vilsack's comments Saturday came in sharp contrast to the position of the Forest Service last December during a hearing on the bill.
At the time, Agriculture Undersecretary Harris Sherman said the logging targets were "unworkable" for the agency and could set a precedent in which each national forest is managed differently by Congress.
Vilsack brought up that concern with members of the partnership in a separate meeting at Sun Mountain Lumber, whose owner Sherm Anderson is part of the partnership.
"We have 155 different forests across the country," he said. "We don't want a situation where we're legislating the management of every forest."
But Vilsack also said the plan's stated goal of clearing overgrown areas near homes, protecting watersheds and restoring damaged landscapes matches the key goals of the Obama administration for the national forests. He added that keeping small-town timber mills in business is vital because rural parts of the country are suffering from unemployment, loss of young people and lower incomes.
"This is also about the future of rural America, not just rural Montana," he said. "What's at stake here is the area of the country that provides the food, the water, the clean air and now the fuel for the country."
Vilsack said other national forests around the country are seeing similar efforts to get work done on the ground. He said the agency would consider Tester's bill as a test - to see if it's effective to improve forest health and help rural economies.
"It's not necessarily a precedent," he said. "It's a recognition that we're dealing with a unique set of circumstances."
Environmental groups opposing the bill don't want it to succeed because it would make it harder for them to shut down logging and restoration projects, Tester said in response to a question.
"They don't like this bill because it's going to hamper their ability to work the system," he said.
Mark Petroni, a retired district ranger on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest, told Vilsack the logging goals could be reached because most of the studies are complete. That work started more than 20 years ago, he said.
"There's a shelf in Dillon that has all these landscape analyses sitting there waiting to go through," he said. "There are 280,000 acres available for mechanical treatment."
Tester said he is still changing the bill to help garner more support. His latest proposals include making the bill a pilot project, as well as extending the time frame for the logging mandates in an effort to make it more palatable to county officials.
The public meeting drew more than 70 people, nearly all of whom voiced support for the bill. Commissioners from Missoula, Powell, Granite and Broadwater counties also said they're behind the measure because it could help the struggling timber industry.
But not everyone at the meeting voiced support.
Among the opponents was Howie Wolke, a wilderness outfitter from Emigrant who said he fears the bill could open large swaths of roadless land to timber companies. He asked Tester to write guarantees in the bill that the logging would take place near homes.
"Logging the backcountry doesn't do any good to reduce the risk of wildfire to communities," said Wolke, one of the founders of the environmental activist group Earth First. "I feel very uncomfortable with a congressional mandate on logging, and this goes beyond that and mandates a level of logging that even the Forest Service doesn't advise."
Reporter Nick Gevock may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.