Hanging together 

Forest bill collaborators resist Senate changes

Environmental groups that have supported Sen. Jon Tester's forest bill find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

Last week a new "discussion draft" of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act (S. 1470) emerged from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee lacking the bill's logging mandate, a key component of the compromise that lies at the heart of a bill originally hammered out among conservationists, loggers and recreationists last year.

Removing the requirement to log some 10,000 acres a year in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai national forests would appear to make the bill more appealing to the environmental community. But it's not so simple. In an effort to preserve the disparate coalition that created the bill, the environmental groups involved in the negotiations have refused, so far, to support the new draft, or any draft that excludes assurances for the timber industry.

With the designation of about 660,000 acres of new wilderness in Montana on the line, it leaves some of Montana's foremost environmental advocates in the uncomfortable and unlikely position of backing the timber industry—or stuck saying nothing at all.

The Montana Wilderness Association (MWA) immediately rejected dropping the logging mandate. Director Tim Baker stated last week that his group will not support legislation that does not contain adequate assurances for their partners in the timber industry. Baker was unavailable to comment further, but MWA Conservation Director John Gatchell says the partnership forged to create the bill is a "serious commitment."

"In a state like Montana," Gatchell says, "your word is really important, I think, so it's got to be gold, or people see you as un-credible, and for good reason."

Ed Regan, resource manager at Townsend's RY Timber, echoes MWA's commitment to the bill's original structure.

"All along we've agreed to support each other on this thing," Regan says, "and without the legislated mandates the logging and stewardship work just becomes an empty promise...I guess MWA is living up to its words. It would expect the same from us."

Most importantly, Tester himself stands by the original bill.

"Make no mistake," he said in a statement, "if the timber mandates are not part of the deal, I'll pull the plug on the whole thing."

Other environmental groups, however, have remained quiet. The Wilderness Society (TWS), for instance, one of the groups among the inner circle that negotiated the bill, declined to comment on the draft after inquires from the Independent. But the group has already stated where it stands. It testified during a Senate subcommittee hearing last December in support of dropping the mandate.

click to enlarge A Senate committee’s “discussion draft” removes the logging mandate in Sen. Jon Tester’s forest bill. That change would appear to be good news for environmental groups—but not if they want the bill to pass. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • A Senate committee’s “discussion draft” removes the logging mandate in Sen. Jon Tester’s forest bill. That change would appear to be good news for environmental groups—but not if they want the bill to pass.

"We oppose congressionally mandated treatment levels in the bill," the testimony read in part, "because they, a) neglect the root causes of the problems this bill is intended to address, b) set an adverse national precedent, c) create unreasonably high expectations, d) fail to provide the agency the resources it needs to do its job, and e) most important, we do not believe this approach will work on the ground."

Bruce Farling, director of Montana Trout Unlimited, another coalition member, sees the discussion draft as lacking meaningful provisions for fish, wildlife and water quality that were in the original bill—omissions he believes should make conservationists reluctant to embrace the document. But more than anything, Farling downplays the significance of the draft.

"It's one product from a larger process of making sausage and I wouldn't go overboard reading too much into it," he says.

The discussion draft includes other changes besides removing the logging mandate. It also removes the 12-month timeline for environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, and drops controversial and unprecedented wilderness provisions, including those allowing helicopter landings for military training exercises in wilderness. Generally, all of these are changes other environmental groups not at the negotiating table have outwardly supported. The U.S. Forest Service opposed the mandate and NEPA timeline, as well.

The discussion draft was obtained by Matthew Koehler of the Last Best Place Wildlands Campaign, which last week called on Tester to release the document to the public, to no avail.

While the document has sparked intrigue, Bill Wicker, spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, warns observers not to put too much stock into it.

"It's a real document," he says. "It's not some counterfeit or bogus document that somebody put together. But it's simply for discussion purposes and everyone will get together again and [change it even more]."

Tester's office says it was the first discussion draft it had seen. Wicker says it was distributed to members of the committee and the Forest Service, and he believes Tester also distributed it to groups that helped draft the bill. RY Timber, for one, received a copy from Tester's office about two weeks ago. "When we first got it," Regan says, "we all understood it was the first shot out of the gate by the committee's staffers." A Tester spo-kesperson declined to say why the discussion draft was distributed to collaborators.

In any case, with both Tester and Wicker's offices declining to release the document to the public, opponents of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act have renewed the same criticism that has dogged the bill ever since Tester introduced it last summer—that the process has lacked transparency.

With less than 40 working days remaining in the current legislative session, Tester's bill faces another challenge: Even if the Senate committee puts the original language back in place, it's doubtful the bill will pass before summer recess.

"Look what's in the pipeline ahead of [Tester's bill]," Wicker says. "They've got to finish that financial reform bill. You've got a climate resolution coming up on Thursday. You've got all kinds of legislation related to the oil spill. You've got immigration reform lurking there. You've got a Supreme Court nominee you've got to confirm, etc. So it would be a challenge. But that's what we do around here, and it's certainly within the range of the doable—if everybody agrees on what the bill should look like."

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