Sen. Jon Tester proposed more than 20 changes to his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act on Feb. 5 in Missoula, but the changes fail to address perhaps the biggest obstacle to his plan.
Tester's Senate Bill 1470, which attempts to reconcile the long-disparate interests of loggers, conservationists and recreationists, took a hit when the Obama administration questioned its feasibility during a Dec. 17 Public Lands and Forests subcommittee hearing. Harris Sherman, undersecretary for natural resources and the environment, said the bill includes levels of mechanical treatment that are "likely unachievable and perhaps unsustainable" and "far exceed historic treatment levels on these forests, and would require an enormous shift in resources from other forests in Montana and other states to accomplish the treatment levels specified in the bill."
None of Tester's newly proposed changes addressed Sherman's concerns. When asked about them by the Independent, Tester said he believes Sherman's opinions do not reflect those of the entire U.S. Forest Service or the Obama administration.
"I think there are also people within the agency and the administration that understand that this bill is something that needs to happen, too," Tester said. "So I think the jury is out. We heard from Sherman. Make no mistake about it. That's exactly what he said. He's got some real heartburn about the mandatory cut. What I say is that, you're looking at a multi-million-acre base...There are plenty of places to find and cut trees." Such as, he went on to say, the Wildland-Urban Interface.
Tester's proposed changes don't just ignore Sherman's comments about the mandate—they attempt to extend the mandate. The senator said his amendments are a response to concerns voiced by some Montanans that the bill's roughly 600,000 acres of wilderness designations would last forever, but the mandate would end after 15 years or once 100,000 acres are harvested.
Tester's bill would be the first in history to mandate timber harvest by statute, a measure intended to boost Montana's floundering timber industry. But by not addressing the mandate, experts say his changes, however well intentioned, are ultimately "cosmetic" and fail to improve the bill's chances of passage.
"When I read the changes I was asking both whether they're going to help the passage of the bill or help defeat it," says Tom Power, former chair of the Economics Department at the University of Montana, "and I think it was more just clarification that won't affect either side's view of what's good or bad about the bill."
The Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee, chaired by Sen. Jeff Bingman, D-NM, must approve the proposed changes. Tester described support for the bill among committee members in general as non-committal but "amenable." He hopes for the bill's passage by year's end.
Tester said his changes address a slew of issues raised by citizens and stakeholders since the bill was introduced last July. In fact, for every proposed change, Tester explained where the idea came from. Tester's proposal to give preference to local contractors, for example, came from Wayne Hirst of Montana AFL-CIO and Mick Wonnacott of the Laborers' Union.
A proposal to change the designation of the Highlands area near Butte from wilderness to a "Special Management Area" came from Wilderness Watch and the Forest Service, among others. The original Highlands wording received criticism for an exception that allowed military helicopters to land in a designated wilderness area when usually even bicycles are prohibited. An Independent article from September 2009 quoted officials with both Wilderness Watch and the Forest Service concerned about what precedent would be set for wilderness areas nationwide.
Another potential precedent-setting measure also included in the Independent's September report—"historical" motorized access to trail sheep in wilderness areas—landed on a list of "changes Sen. Tester considered but cannot make."
"Sen. Tester put these exceptions in the bill to make sure this is a made-in-Montana solution that works for Montanans," stated a release passed out at Tester's press conference. "He carefully chose these exceptions he included and they each serve specific purposes to ongoing activities in Montana's local communities."
No matter Tester's reasoning, critics claim all of the smaller changes could prove inconsequential without addressing the logging mandate and other big questions, such as how some inventoried roadless areas would be managed. Some wonder whether he's simply rearranging camp just before the forest burns.
"If he's unwilling to [remove the mandate], and if the majority of the people in the Senate and the House are unwilling to go for it, and the Forest Service is against it, at what cost does he want to continue pursuing that approach?" asks WildWest Institute's Matthew Koehler, an outspoken critic of the bill who testified during December's subcommittee hearing. "...I think the bill is still not likely to pass as written."