When Harris Sherman, overseer of the U.S. Forest Service, stated in December that the logging mandate essential to Sen. Jon Tester's forest bill was "likely unachievable and unsustainable," a figurative snag (probably one killed by pine beetles) fell and blocked the bill's path to passage. But this past weekend Sherman's boss, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, swooped into Montana and appeared to drag that snag right out of the way.
While in Montana at Tester's invitation, Vilsack reportedly said the Obama administration could support the logging mandate in the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act as a "pilot project." He said the bill is "absolutely in line with the goals of the administration," and that there's "a tremendous opportunity here."
That's quite the 180, and it certainly bodes well for the bill. But are Vilsack's off-the-cuff comments supposed to be taken as an official change in position? The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) doesn't necessarily say so.
"We all agree on the broad aims of Sen. Tester's legislation," a USDA spokesperson tells the Indy, "and USDA looks forward to continued conversations with the Senator and his staff to ensure the legislation works for Montana and the Forest Service. As Secretary Vilsack noted during his visit to Montana last weekend, we want to be careful about legislating forest management for all 153 national forests. But, we strongly support the collaborative approach to this legislation and understand the broad-based support the legislation has in Montana."
Not exactly effusive. Democrats and Republicans agree on the broadest aims of health care reform—lowering costs, streamlining the system—and that hasn't led to a workable compromise. But still, it appears the administration has given Tester's bill an opening. That's more than our junior senator could say before Vilsack's visit.
So, what now? It looks like what's already been a fairly ugly sausage-making process may get even uglier. After months of hashing out what Tester touts as a "Made in Montana" compromise among some state loggers, environmentalists and recreationists, followed by months of critique from all corners—including ours—Tester's first big bill continues to sit in Washington, D.C., waiting to be reshaped by the world's largest meat grinder. We'll see if his "Made in Montana" label remains when it comes out the other end.