Cut down 

Tester's forest bill deserved to be dropped

It's Christmas time and little boys and girls who have been good this year look forward to having their stockings filled with treats from Jolly Old St. Nick. But for Sen. Jon Tester and those who supported his former Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, there won't be treats this year—and probably not next year, either.

It's been well over a year since Tester introduced his S.1470 into the U.S. Senate with much bravado and cheering for what its supporters liked to characterize as a "collaborative" process between timber mills and conservationists. In truth, the greatest part of the bill, that dealing with the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, was put together by a tiny handful of people in secret, closed-door meetings before Tester was ever elected to represent Montana in the Senate. Although lauded as a product of "many Montanans," that description is factually challenged. It was a small group that brought the bill to Tester, and the deal had already been cut.

That deal, which was in part funded by the PEW Campaign for America's Wilderness, is like many of PEW's efforts, a so-called "quid pro quo" measure similar to those tried in other states. Some have succeeded and some have failed, but all have one thing in common: They trade away publicly owned natural resources to for-profit interests in return for those interests accepting the designation of some additional wilderness.

In this regard, Tester's bill was a classic example. In return for designating about 666,000 acres of wilderness, the bill removed currently protected Wilderness Study Areas from that status and opened some of them up to motorized recreation—the antithesis of the wilderness attributes they were required to possess in order to qualify as Wilderness Study Areas.

That, however, wasn't the worst poison pill in Tester's bill. Instead, it was the other trade-off—that 100,000 acres of national forest would be mandated to be logged over the next 15 years. Some of the bill's supporters claim that there is no logging mandate, but you can visit the Indy Blog (http://tinyurl.com/27kdlau) and see Sen. Tester himself saying the bill requires "forest restoration—logging of 100,000 acres over 15 years." That, as they say, is from the horse's mouth.

During the Senate hearing on the bill, almost one year ago to the day, the Forest Service witness testified that mandating logging levels would "balkanize" the agency. What he meant was clear: Tester's mandate would require significant funding to "get out the cut" demanded by the bill and the agency would basically have to rob Peter to pay Paul by taking funds from other regions and needs to meet Tester's logging requirements.

The measure would have also made a significant change in national forest management by basically saying the desires of a couple of local timber mills—despite the lack of a timber market—took precedence over what the American people may want to do or not do with their forests. And make no mistake, these are not Montana forests, these are national forests, and they belong to all Americans whether they live here or not.

To make a long story a lot shorter, the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee did not agree with Sen. Tester that this was setting a "new way of doing business" for the Forest Service. Instead, the committee came up with a rewrite of the bill that dumped the mandated cut levels in favor of a more sensible and legal process. Unfortunately for them, Tester arrogantly declared that the committee rewrite was "dead on arrival" and refused to countenance the changes the Senate had every right to make.

And so Tester's bill sat in committee for a year and was never acted upon. It had no mark-up, no committee amendments, and no vote. These are all important considerations, because they're the factual background to what came next.

Late in December, with a lame duck Congress desperately trying to produce something the Democrats could call "progress," the Senate decided to lump over a trillion dollars worth of appropriations into a 2,000-page omnibus spending bill. Among lots of pork-barrel items, the bill also tossed another $158 billion down the black hole of Afghanistan and Iraq. But it had nothing whatsoever to do with wilderness or logging until Tester managed to get his revised measure, now re-titled the "Montana Forest Jobs and Restoration Initiative," added as a rider to the bill.

Suffice it to say the omnibus bill went down in flames, taking Tester's rider with it. But although the spending bill was gone, the criticism of Tester's desperate move was not. Newspapers across the state editorialized against his attempt to stuff his logging bill through as a rider, especially since he had promised during his campaign against former Sen. Conrad Burns that he would not use riders for public lands bills. Even the Daily Inter Lake, in the heart of logging country, called it "a shameful and very demonstrative example of everything that's wrong with earmark bonanzas in Washington, D.C."

Moreover, Tester's last-minute Hail Mary attempt allowed Rep. Denny Rehberg, Montana's lone congressman, to rally opponents to the bill, accumulating an incredible 2,250 people on an emergency conference call the night before the omnibus bill was killed, adding insult to Tester's self-inflicted injury.

And so it's over for this session of Congress, although Tester says he'll reintroduce it next year. But really, with the House switching to a Republican majority, there's very little likelihood the measure—at least in its current form—stands a chance.

What we have learned is simple: "Collaboration" doesn't work because when deals are set in stone as "take it or leave it" they're likely to get left. Localizing control of national forests doesn't work. And mixing wilderness and logging doesn't work.

Let's hope, with those lessons learned, we can get back to straight-up advocating for new Montana wilderness for what it truly is—the greatest Christmas gift we could ever give to present and future generations of Americans.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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