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There was a time when Thomas made a decent living in Montana, he says, but that's over. Now, logging in the Bitterroots has become cumbersome and unprofitable, he says, due to the flipside of zealous conservation: excessive regulation. His last Forest Service contract was seven inches thick, he says; he knows because he measured it with his carpenter's rule. Complying with all its mitigation mandates, such as ceasing work if the soil is too wet, eats into any profit, he says. He'd planned on 180 days of work for himself and a crew under that last contract, he says, but he was forced to shut the job down after 57 days. "My guys were crying at me, saying 'Craig, we're only working two days out of three, I can't feed my family.'"
The last time Thomas logged in Montana was almost three years ago, a job on private land. In the meantime, he's worked in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Minnesota, California, and Nevada. More nights than he cares to count, he misses dinner with his wife. "Poor soul, she got tangled up with me. She should have found some other fellow...this has been a hard thing."
Who's keeping him from working in Montana? To Thomas it's clear: folks like the Brandborgs and their allies, who have fought to protect forests and wilderness areas. The restrictions in his last contract, he says, "are directly the result" of litigation "that developed these mitigation factors." Conservationists talk a lot about battling industry, he says, but what about the loggers? Many of the restrictions that hamper his vocation are devised during administrative hearings, he says, which many working folks can't attend. "We're busy trying to make a living."
Gordy Sanders is the resource manager at Pyramid Mountain Lumber, the oldest family-owned and –operated lumber mill in Montana. Sanders has been in the wood-products business for 40 years. At least 30 mills in Montana have closed in the last two decades, he says, largely because the federal government is an undependable partner.
The Bitterroot Forest yielded 3.5 million board feet of lumber last year, less than 5 percent of its 1969 level.
"We're seeing a significant reduction in the amount of logs on trucks," Sanders says. "It takes years and years and years for the agencies to offer a sale."
Thomas says all of this doesn't make him angry so much as jealous. From where he sits, it looks like Brandy has won. "I have great respect for the individual, even the stuff he did to eliminate me," he says. "I wish I had done half as well."
At 53, Dan Brandborg, one of Brandy's five children, says he doesn't have the same will to organize the masses shared by his father and grandfather, whom he affectionately describes as "bossy." When it comes to being the child of a zealot, he says, he and his siblings joke that "if dad had gone into Christianity, we would all have really been in trouble."
As it is, they've felt the heat generated by Brandy's and Guy's ardor. In 1988, their family cabin in Tin Cup Canyon burned. The family suspected it was arson. "It was pretty darn suspicious," says Dan, a renewable-energy consultant. "The cabin was a real blow, but it's just part of it."
The fire was perhaps emblematic of the passion behind the continuing debate about how best to manage Montana's miles and miles of hills, mineral deposits, and forests. Land is no abstraction in Montana, says Pat Williams: "It's real. We work, live, and play on it. And so it's not entirely unusual that we'd be willing to fight over it as well. And we do."
Lately, Sen. Tester, with his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, has put himself forward as a referee. "Montanans put down their fists and, with great humility, worked together to create something big," he said of his bill last week. "Everyone gave a little and will get a lot."
No, Brandy says. The bill would set a dangerous precedent. No lawmaker in D.C. should tell a forester how to do her job or tell citizens how to manage their lands. "It just opens the door to shoot-from-the-hip management."
More specifically, some conservationists balk at Tester's compromise because it would remove wilderness study areas from protection, including land in the Sapphire and west Pioneer mountains.
Meanwhile, multiple-use proponents such as the Gallatin Valley-based Citizens for Balanced Use, which advocates for motorized recreation on public lands, contend that wilderness designations tend "to privilege some parts of social culture and nature at the expense of others." Putting more land in Montana out of bounds for resource extraction will further hinder job growth in the state, says CBU board member Kerry White. "We're kind of in the fight of our life here," he says.
Echoing Rep. Rehberg's opposition, White says he's afraid that if Tester's bill passes, its only concession to industry, the logging mandate, will be tied up in years of litigation. The only guarantee in the bill is hundreds of thousands of additional acres of wilderness, he says. It's "totally bogus."
Sanders, of Pyramid Mountain Lumber, disagrees. Tester's bill could bring a needed boost to the Montana timber industry, Sanders says, and break a 30-year impasse over the state's public lands.
As the debate over Tester's bill intensifies, Brandy looks through his living room window, to the Bitterroot Mountains, and gets ready for another day. "The war will go on," he says.