One of the most contested parts of Sen. Jon Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act is the plan to log 10,000 acres a year for 10 years.
When he testified on Tester's bill on Dec. 17, Agriculture Undersecretary Harris Sherman told a congressional subcommittee "the bill would create unrealistic expectations on the part of communities and forest products stakeholders that the agency would accomplish the quantity of mechanical treatments required."
He also said the bill "in particular includes levels of mechanical treatment that are likely unachievable and perhaps unsustainable. The levels of mechanical treatment called for in the bill far exceed historic treatment levels on these forests."
In a visit to Missoula Feb. 5, Tester acknowledged that demand was causing some "heartburn" in the U.S. Forest Service. But he insisted the agency needs to change how it manages timber.
Now, the agency appears to be listening.
On Feb. 24, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told Congress he wanted "approximately 20 10-year stewardship contracts offered in targeted areas around the country that could provide a steady supply of forest products."
He advocated "landscape-scale" projects developed "though multi-stakeholder collaborative planning" that sounded a lot like Tester's draft legislation.
And on Saturday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack endorsed Tester's approach as a "pilot project."
The shifting message does reflect a significant change in Forest Service thinking, according to Regional Forester Leslie Weldon, who presides over Northern Region forests in Montana, north Idaho and the Dakotas.
"Large landscape analyses are the direction we're going," Weldon said. "But we have less experience with taking on large stewardship contracts. We have some challenges we face with large analyses that are trying to get through one NEPA document to address every single resource concern in there."
NEPA is the National Environmental Policy Act - an exhaustive research requirement for any big forest project. Tester's stewardship contracts involve a mix of logging, road maintenance and removal, habitat restoration and other activities. Ensuring all those parts get proper environmental review will be complicated, Weldon said.
"We want to make sure we're putting ourselves in a better position to know what that pace of delivery of work will be," Weldon said. "We need to make sure the agency can deliver the investments needed."
Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy said the senator's office has been working for weeks to persuade the Forest Service that the bill can work.
"He (Tester) has been saying all along: ‘Think big,' " Murphy said. "And he's encouraged to see the Forest Service seems to be taking this approach. Jon also understands that long-term stewardship contracts mean long-term commitments to forest landscapes and the communities that rely on them. Some of the dead and dying landscapes in Montana need a 10-year commitment."