Ochenski 

Curious hire: Former timber lobbyist joins state agency

It’s not hard to remember when Brian Schweitzer was first running for governor and he pointed disdainfully to the practices of the previous Republican governors who hired industry lobbyists into their administrations. Schweitzer said he would not be hiring lobbyists into his administration and so far, much to his credit, he has kept that promise. But just this week—and the governor may not even know it—a former timber industry lobbyist started work as the forest policy specialist for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

To those who have spent time in the forest policy arena, the name Julie Altemus will ring a bell. Altemus worked as a senior policy adviser and field representative for former Republican Sen. Conrad Burns back in 2003, when the Republican-dominated Congress passed President Bush’s Healthy Forests Restoration Act. 

Shortly afterward, Altemus went to work for the Montana Logging Association (MLA) as a resource specialist, where her positions on environmental analysis and public opportunity for review, protection of roadless lands, judicial appeal and critical habitat designation for lynx, among others, were wholly those of the timber industry. Given her jobs with Burns and MLA, it makes sense that Altemus would have taken such positions. But what’s puzzling is how those positions meld with the Schweitzer administration.

For instance, consider the Bush administration’s 2005 Roadless Rule that basically overthrew the Clinton-era Roadless Rule, which would have protected 60 million acres of roadless lands across the nation. Schweitzer had just taken office and found himself dead in the middle of the five-year debate on roadless lands. Doing what many considered the right thing, Schweitzer wrote a strongly worded letter that outlined the value of roadless lands for wildlife, recreation and clean water. Following that, he sent a letter to Bush blasting the new federal policy as simply “passing the buck” to the states to resolve a federal issue that had been festering for decades.

“They’ve given me a broke-down baler and a vice grip and told me to bale hay,” Schweitzer told reporters. In his letter to Bush, Schweitzer wrote: “The Forest Service has been trying to resolve this issue for upwards of 30 years with little to no success. With each succeeding plan, the issues have become more contentious and irreconcilable. Now your administration, without the benefit of public hearings, has issued a final rule that asks the states to shoulder this burden both administratively and financially.”

Prior to that, Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath had joined the legal effort to re-instate the protections of the Clinton Roadless Rule and defended the overwhelming support it received from Montanans, writing: “In all, 17,429 Montanans participated in the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] process, and of those commenting, 11,654 favored even stronger roadless area protections than those proposed in the Forest Service’s draft environmental impact statement.”

When you look through the record, it’s pretty hard to believe that the efforts by Schweitzer and McGrath were intended to do anything but preserve Montana’s millions of acres of roadless lands. 

That, however, is not the position Altemus took in her news release on the topic, where she wrote: “The Clinton one-size-fits-all Roadless Rule was determined to be illegal by a federal court. Over 6.1 million acres in Montana would have been affected—acres that have never been adequately mapped. Furthermore, the environmental and social consequences of leaving these areas unmanaged were never properly assessed.”

In spite of the fact that nothing in the Clinton rule ever required that the nation’s roadless lands would be left “unmanaged,” Altemus concluded: “We support the Bush Administration and the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s return to common sense to the management of public lands.”

Or how about designation of critical habitat for lynx? After a lawsuit forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for the elusive cats, the federal agency put forth what conservationists considered an extremely lame proposal that only designated minimal lynx habitat. Despite the low level of protection, Altemus told reporters the designation would translate to “one more layer of impediment to active management” of forest lands.

Or take the case of the 2006 Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act that raised worries of expedited logging without environmental safeguards and minimized the opportunity for public review and comment. Some 546 scientists from across the nation, including some from the University of Montana, signed a letter that said they were concerned that the legislation would “bind us to land management practices that, perhaps logical in the past, are no longer tenable in the light of recent scientific understanding. Neither ecological benefits nor economic efficiency result from post-disturbance logging.”

Altemus, however, sent a letter to the U.S. Senate on behalf of the MLA supporting the legislation because it would allow quicker access to logging national forests, writing: “Therefore, we strongly support the opportunity to expeditiously harvest this wood fiber for national utilization and consumption or we will lose these timber stands, along with important wildlife and fisheries habitats, to catastrophic wildfire.”

On Categorical Exclusions to NEPA—which the Bush administration sought to use to minimize or eliminate environmental analysis, public comment and judicial appeals—Altemus decided that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned Bush’s use of categorical exclusions, didn’t really understand the law, writing: “Unfortunately, this is a battle that has been lost as the 9th Circuit apparently does not understand the CE’s legal status under the code of federal regulations.”

How Altemus fits in with the Schweitzer administration isn’t clear— particularly her support for circumventing environmental analysis and opportunities for public review and comment. In Montana, our constitutionally guaranteed right-to-know and open government provisions are the bedrocks of our society.

Unfortunately, it’s too late to keep this particular timber lobbyist fox out of the henhouse. The best we can do now is keep a close eye on her plans for our forest resources.
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