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U.S. Sen. Jon Tester

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester

A new version of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act received bipartisan support from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday morning, clearing a path for the full Senate to consider it.

The latest draft of the four-year-old bill keeps a mandate to harvest or thin 100,000 acres of timber in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai national forests over 15 years. But it switches about 23,000 acres of proposed wilderness into less-restrictive recreation areas.

That brings the tally to about 637,000 acres of new wilderness and 360,000 acres of recreation areas allowing some motorized or commercial use in Montana. Other changes include a requirement for the U.S. Forest Service to file a compliance report if it fails to meet the bill’s performance requirements, and a guarantee the Montana pilot program won’t draw funds from other state programs or Forest Service regions.

“That’s a pretty big deal,” Tester said of the funding limitation. “I don’t think we would have got the bill across the finish line without that change. Both sides of the aisle worried about pulling money out of other regions to get this bill implemented. It was important to get that language in there.”

In an interview with the Missoulian on Thursday morning, Tester said receiving “solid, strong support from the Forest Service” helped bring the bill to committee action after previous failed attempts. Forest Service officials had objected to earlier versions because it might draw resources away from other management plans.

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The committee passed Tester’s bill on a voice vote, with Republicans James Risch of Idaho and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee joining all nine Democrats present voting in favor. Eight Republican committee members voted against Tester’s bill, including co-chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Murkowski said she couldn’t agree to the bill’s permanent designation of nearly 1 million acres of wilderness and recreation areas for just 100,000 acres of forest harvesting.

“What we’re talking about here is a 10-to-1 ratio,” Murkowski said. “I look at that as not a fair trade.”

Committee Chairman Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, replied that Tester had reduced potential wilderness in response to local concerns and that the rest of the proposed designations were currently being managed as wild land, not timber country.

“Senator Tester has made it clear to me he’s going to continue to work with us, to make sure the bill works in his home state,” Wyden said.

Tester was surprised at Murkowski’s objections, saying she appeared more supportive in earlier conversations.

“Some folks don’t understand how important 100,000 acres of potential supply for our mills are,” Tester said. “Bottom line, we’re creating jobs with the timber industry with this bill. If we get 100,000 acres of timber cut, that’s more than has been cut on federal land in a long, long time. And we can look at getting some more released in the future.”

On the other side of the ratio, Tester argued wilderness and recreation lands were also job drivers.

“There are still some folks opposed to wilderness just because it’s wilderness,” Tester said. “They think you set it aside and it doesn’t do any good. It does do good. It’s also an economic driver, not only for recreation, but as recruitment for employers and industries in the state of Montana. I can’t tell you how many businesses sit in this office and tell me how important wilderness is to recruiting and hiring well-trained professionals and businesses into the state. It’s what sets Montana apart, quite frankly.”

The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act was first introduced in 2009 as a compilation of three local initiatives on the Lolo, Kootenai and Beaverhead-Deerlodge national forests. Environmentalists, conservation groups and timber industry representatives in each area produced compromises that OK’d mandated forest acreage for harvest and thinning in return for permanent wilderness or recreation area designations on territory that had been previously proposed for protection.

The latest version switches 20,000 acres of the proposed Snowcrest Wilderness Area into a special management area that allows farmers and ranchers to use motorized vehicles to maintain their irrigation systems. Tester said the change was not intended to open the area to more motorized recreation.

Another amendment moves the boundaries of the Mount Jefferson, Electric Peak and West Pioneers wilderness areas to open about 3,000 acres to snowmobilers.

“Although this law applies to Montana lands, it directly affects Idahoans,” Risch said in an email. “The original proposal closed the southern portion of Mount Jefferson to snowmobiling. This area is accessed directly from Idaho and is enjoyed by Idahoans who snowmobile in that area. I have heard from many Idahoans protesting that closure.”

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The bill’s combination of land protection and logging mandates has been its most controversial aspect. Tester derailed a 2010 committee review after Senate staffers released a draft of his bill that removed the logging commitment while keeping the wilderness designations. But many members of Montana’s environmental community have opposed the bill because of that same compromise.

“We think it’s a horrible precedent,” said Keith Hammer of the Swan View Coalition. “We think those decisions should be left up to the forest planning process, where everybody in the nation gets a say on how the plans are written and what’s implemented in individual timber sales. We would like to see some wilderness designated, but not at the expense of mandated logging levels.”

But that compromise was what made the bill possible after 30 years of inaction on Montana’s federal land management, according to supporter Loren Rose of Pyramid Mountain Lumber.

“This represents tangible progress for a bill that was created from the ground up by Montanans who want to move beyond the gridlock that is paralyzing National Forest management,” Rose said in an email. “This is the people’s legislation and Congress can continue to do the people’s work by getting our legislation to the finish line.”

Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock added the land protections have strong support from the hunting and fishing community.

“Sportsmen I talk to understand that Montana’s general five-week rifle season depends on secure habitat for big game,” Gevock said in an email. “The forest legislation continues to pick up momentum from hunters and anglers because it will protect those vital habitats while also ensuring that good restoration work gets done in the front-country winter range.”

Sen. Max Baucus has co-signed Tester’s bill. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., was still considering the legislation, according to spokeswoman Alee Lockman.

“Representative Daines has been actively opposing this bill when he says he’s been neutral on it,” Tester said. “I think that’s why we lost a lot of Republican votes.”

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

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