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Jon Tester

Jon Tester

Sen. Jon Tester’s bill authorizing more logging and more wilderness in Montana goes before a Senate committee review on Thursday, four years after it was introduced.

“This is the first time the bill has been voted on anywhere in Congress,” said Paul Spitler, wilderness campaign director for the Wilderness Society in Bozeman. “It’s a pretty important day for this legislation for it to see a vote.”

The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act gets a markup hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee – a crucial step in moving legislation toward a vote of the whole chamber.

It would add about 660,000 acres of new wilderness and 336,000 acres of mixed-use recreation areas to the state. It would also mandate logging and thinning of at least 100,000 acres on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai national forests over 15 years, as well as an unspecified amount on the Lolo National Forest.

The bill neared a committee hearing in 2010, but the staff of then-chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., put forward a rewritten version that removed the logging mandates. Tester objected, and the bill never reached markup. Tester also attempted to get it amended into other must-pass legislation, but saw it removed before crucial deadlines.

Tester spokeswoman Andrea Helling said she did not know if the bill would have any language changes this time around. She added that Bingaman at the time was generally opposed to logging mandates while current chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is more supportive. Wyden has his own timber management bill for Oregon forests that uses methods similar to Tester’s.

While the bill likely won’t reach a floor vote before Congress takes its Christmas recess, it will remain on the docket for the second half of the current session. It’s now known formally as Senate Bill 37.

“I think there’s a growing recognition we’ve gone a couple congresses without passing a lot of legislation, and there’s a backlog building up,” said David Dreher, U.S. public lands officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts who has worked with supporters of Tester’s bill. “Both houses have legislative priorities, and that creates a whole mix of things you can bring to create political support. With the Tester bill, you’ve got people working together to solve problems, and that doesn’t get lost on people here.”

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The bill does have its opponents, both in Montana and nationally. Stateside, it’s divided the environmental community with its provision allowing Congress to mandate logging and thinning levels with streamlined Forest Service review. It’s also caught fire from multiple-use and off-road vehicle groups who object to new wilderness additions where their motorized vehicles aren’t allowed.

Bill supporter Gordy Sanders of Pyramid Mountain Lumber warned another factor may be at play – national-level frustration with the Forest Service’s inability to bring timber to market.

“The dissatisfaction within Congress folk with forest management and forest health is clearly resonating, and it continues to grow a bigger center of interest in getting something done,” Sanders said. “I sense there’s a lot of interest to do something across the greater landscape beyond single states or single locations.”

House Bill 1526 by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., is an example of a national-level forest management bill. Hastings’ bill would require logging on 50 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s available timberland and raise barriers to legal challenges of timber sales. It has no wilderness provisions. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Sanders said he thinks Congress still prefers bills that show local support and compromise on wilderness issues to attempts to impose land management from Washington.

“Everyone has tried to learn from lessons in the past,” Sanders said. “They got involved in the collaboratives to see more of their interest on the ground. Once you’ve agreed on what everybody can support and can live with, that makes a big difference.”

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

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.