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U.S. Sen. Jon Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act was not included in a House version of the 2012 omnibus bill to fund the federal government that was released Thursday morning, setting off a round of finger-pointing between his office and that of Rep. Denny Rehberg.

"Congressman Rehberg is now personally responsible for killing guaranteed Montana jobs," Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy said Thursday. "That fact that Dennis Rehberg actively worked against a popular, bipartisan, made-in-Montana jobs bill simply because Jon's name is on it shows his true colors: Congressman Rehberg is not looking out for Montana; he is only interested in his own political career."

Rehberg spokesman Jed Link countered that Tester's bill lacked support among his own Senate colleagues. While Tester was able to attach his bill to the original Senate version of the Interior Department budget, the conference committee didn't include it in the combined version.

"Senator Tester's wilderness bill simply isn't good for Montana and that's why Denny worked to keep it out of the Interior appropriations bill," Link said. "New wilderness areas are guaranteed in the Tester bill but new jobs are not. In the long run, this bill will mean less public access to our lands and fewer jobs. And that's just not a fair deal for Montanans."

Republican Rehberg is challenging Democrat Tester for the Senate seat in next year's election.

Republican members of the conference committee had signed off on the nine-department, 1,209-page budget bill earlier this week. But Democrats withheld their signatures in a complicated bargaining maneuver aimed at blocking some Republican riders in the last-minute legislation rush.

That included opposition to the linkage of Keystone XL petroleum pipeline approval to an extension of a payroll tax cut authored by Rehberg. President Barack Obama had postponed the pipeline decision until after the election, citing concerns about its potential impact on a major Midwest aquifer. And he threatened to veto the tax bill if Republicans tried to fast-track the pipeline permit in the same legislation.

Late on Wednesday night, House Republicans released the conference budget deal without the Democrats' signatures, although it contains the deals worked out by both sides. That version of the Interior budget left out both Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act and a proposed new national park in Rhode Island, as well as 117 policy riders proposed by House Republicans, according to Tester's office.

"Some fixes need still to be made, but that certainly dims prospects for the Tester language to be included," said Alan Rowsome, conservation funding director for The Wilderness Society, who's been monitoring the budget process from Washington, D.C. "It likely would not be in this scenario, unless there's a real reopening of the bill."

The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act would have designated about 1 million acres of new wilderness and national recreation areas. It would also impose a timber treatment mandate on three national forests in Montana.

The bill was supported by a coalition of conservation groups, sawmill owners, environmentalists and timber industry representatives. It drew opposition from environmentalists opposed to mandated logging, as well as off-road vehicle, ranching and mining organizations.

The Interior budget does include some new policy measures. They include a move supported by both Rehberg and Tester to give a greater accounting of money paid through the Equal Access to Justice Act, which pays the legal fees of people who successfully sue the government. The bill also has a provision blocking the federal Bureau of Land Management from designating any new wilderness areas, increases funding for oil and gas production, and rejects new fees for onshore oil and gas producers.

It would add $1 million to a wolf/livestock loss demonstration program and $2 million for wolf monitoring in Montana and Idaho. It removes a requirement to separate domestic sheep from wild bighorn sheep herds. And it restores $14 million for payments in lieu of taxes from national wildlife refuges to county governments.

In the U.S. Forest Service arena, the proposed budget provides a full $40 million for the Cooperative Forest Landscape Restoration Project that includes Montana logging projects, $52.6 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund that pays for conservation easements on wildlife habitat, and $45 million for removal of legacy roads and trails.

Murphy said a slim possibility remained that further negotiations could resurrect the Montana bill's chances in December. The bill also remains on the docket of Senate business for the coming year.

"I'm not saying it's likely, but it's not final yet," Murphy said.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

 

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