U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., got some unexpected support from potential critics of his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act and doubts from assumed allies during a congressional hearing on Wednesday.
Montana Cattlemen's Association representative Wally Congdon of Dillon was invited by Republican members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to address Tester's bill. He ended up telling Tester, "I think overall you couldn't have done a better job."
"It is the best chance I have ever seen after 30 years of somebody doing wilderness, doing multiple use," Congdon told the committee. "I would ask that you please support Senator Tester because a great deal of work went into this."
On the other hand, Agriculture Department Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Harris Sherman would not give a full endorsement to the bill, adding the U.S. Forest Service still "had a few concerns with the bill."
"We're very supportive of the concepts and goals of this bill," Sherman said when Tester asked if the USDA supported his legislation. "We're excited about moving on the projects. And we look forward to completing work on the few remaining issues there are."
Wednesday's hearing was for land management bills introduced in the last session of Congress that didn't make it to a vote. Tester initially introduced his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act in 2009.
The bill would mandate landscape stewardship projects on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai national forests, which would affect 100,000 acres of timber over 15 years. The projects range from traditional logging to fuels reduction, beetle-kill thinning and road repair or removal. It would also support a similar effort in the Blackfoot-Clearwater area of the Lolo National Forest that doesn't have specific acreage totals.
The second part of his bill would designate 666,260 acres of new wilderness and 369,501 acres of recreation areas in Montana. Tester told the committee those designations would not take away grazing rights or the ability to maintain water and irrigation facilities inside wilderness areas.
He denied it would shut down motorized access to public lands, noting that of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest's 6,600 miles of backcountry roads, only 50 miles would be closed under his bill. And he pointed to the creation of permanent recreation areas for snowmobiles.
Sun Mountain Lumber Co. president Sherm Anderson testified that his mill had little difficulty selling wood products even in the current depressed market. The problem was lack of timber supply from Forest Service lands, which he said the Tester bill would fix "by performing needed restoration work, preserving our high mountain backcountries, guaranteeing recreational opportunities, protecting our clean water, hunting, fishing, grazing for livestock, protecting our communities from catastrophic wildfires, while preserving the wood products infrastructure that still remains. We see this as a win-win for all Americans who believe in the wise use of our national forests."
Congdon had three suggestions for Tester's bill. He wanted more input from local stakeholders on stewardship logging projects. He called for explicit acknowledgement of multiple-use principles. And he wanted progress standards based on economic or social impact changed to more specific benchmarks.
"Talk about recreational visitor days, grazing AUMs (animal unit months) and board feet of lumber," Congdon said. "Give us a number that those of us on the ground know what it is. We know what a log truck load is."
Tester said after the hearing that Congdon's suggestions could be included after further review.
The bill also won praise from committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who is pushing a similar bill for his state. He said the Forest Service needs to change its management practices before the logging industry is completely out of business.
"There is no question the challenges of new forestry are going to be nationwide," Wyden said. "If we were starting from scratch, with a fresh slate, Montana could go forward with its approach and Oregon could go forward with its approach. But we don't have that kind of time. If we lose that infrastructure, it is lights-out on much of the rural economy of my state."