Shortly before the U.S. Senate adjourned for its August recess, it passed a flurry of bills dealing with a number of important matters, from veteran care to firefighter funding.
Seven of those bills were sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana. As of this past week, President Trump has signed five of those bills into law.
In a nutshell, the seven bills:
- Provide emergency funding for the Veterans Choice Program, including funding to expand the VA clinic in Missoula.
- Rename the Missoula VA clinic in honor of Doolittle Raider David J. Thatcher, and dedicate the two VA medical facilities in Billings in honor of Joseph Medicine Crow and Benjamin Charles Steele.
- Expand G.I. Bill education benefits.
- Cut the backlog of disability appeals at the VA.
- Reauthorize grants to both professional and volunteer fire departments.
- Require better tracking of purchases made by federal agencies.
- Require the Federal Communications Commission to establish quality standards for rural phone service.
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While Tester cannot claim sole credit for their success, the unanimous passage of these individual bills adds up to a remarkable demonstration of bipartisan effectiveness for a Democratic senator in a Republican-controlled Congress.
Will the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act be next?
It’s a long shot, sure, but the bill offers an urgent opportunity for a bitterly divided Congress to come together and pass meaningful legislation. And as the nation’s lawmakers will be taking up the contentious 2018 budget proposal upon their return to Washington, D.C. next month, such opportunities should not be ignored.
The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act proposes to expand the Bob Marshall, Mission Mountain and Scapegoat wilderness areas by about 80,000 acres – while also protecting prized recreation areas, and supporting the local timber industry with forest restoration projects.
The proposal began to take shape more than a decade ago, when stakeholders representing the conservation community, loggers, recreation groups, government agencies others agreed to set aside their differences, sit down together and figure out a solution to their common problems.
The first problem: the divisiveness which characterized public lands management in western Montana. The solution: a collaborative approach which focused negotiations on areas of agreement.
Supporters of the initiative grew to include Pyramid Mountain Lumber, The Wilderness Society, the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission, Missoula County commissioners, local business owners, snowmobile and mountain bike groups – and of course, Senator Tester, who combined the proposal with two other, similar collaborative proposals from western Montana in 2009 and dubbed it the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.
Over the past half-dozen years, supporters of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act have continued building support, working with various organizations to hammer out agreements to any remaining points of contention. Although the proposal still has its critics, support for the initiative is stronger than ever.
Last year, a University of Montana poll commissioned by UM’s Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative showed that 73 percent of Democrats, 74 percent of Republicans and 75 percent of Independents are in favor of the project.
Meanwhile, the bill has yet to receive a vote on the Senate floor.
Instead of waiting for Congress to take action, the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Initiative participants helped launch the SouthWestern Crown of the Continent Collaborative to spur $19 million in federal spending on stream restoration, trail maintenance and noxious weed treatment. According to the collaborative, that work has created or maintained 138 jobs in the Blackfoot and Clearwater valleys and injected $33 million into the Seeley Lake and Ovando economies.
They continue to push for action on the remaining components of their vision, however.
Among other things, the bill would create the Otatsy Recreation Management Area, which would open 2,000 acres to snowmobilers, and maintain 3,800 acres of mountain bike access in the Spread Mountain Recreation Area. Such recreation opportunities are key to the local and statewide outdoors-related industries.
The latest reports from the Outdoor Industry Association shows that businesses catering to Montana’s outdoors are now the state’s largest economic sector, generating more than $7 billion in consumer spending each year. Additionally, such industry supports 71,000 jobs and $2.2 billion in wages and salaries, as well as $286 million in tax revenues.
With this in mind, a Last Best Outdoors Fest is being planned to celebrate Montana’s thriving outdoor industry. The free festival will take place on Tuesday, Aug. 22, in Columbia Falls, and is being hosted by Business for Montana’s Outdoors, the Montana Brewers Association and Senator Tester.
Tester re-introduced the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act of 2017 as a stand-alone piece of legislation this past March. It was referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources – of which U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, is a member.
Daines, as well as U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Montana’s previous congressman, doubtless share with Tester a deep appreciation of Montana’s outdoors. They should also acknowledge the growing role of outdoor-related industry in the state’s economy, take a page from local collaborators, and add their voices of support to the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act.