Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sen. Tester's forest bill may survive after all

Posted By on Tue, Dec 14, 2010 at 3:26 PM

Sen. Jon Tester's controversial Forest Jobs and Recreation Act has been lumped into a massive $1.1 trillion, 1,924-page omnibus spending bill Democrats hope to pass by year's end.

Actually, it's not called that anymore. The bill's now titled the "Montana Forest Jobs and Restoration Initiative." Here's a PDF. The initiative begins on page 893.

“Jon’s pleased that his Senate colleagues agree it’s time to put the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act up for a vote," spokesman Aaron Murphy said in a statement. "This is just another step in what has been a year-and-a-half long process to create jobs in Montana. Nothing is final until this bill is passed by the full Congress and is signed into law.”

Tester's office says the Senate is expected to vote on the bill sometime between Thursday and Saturday.

Click here for maps of proposed wilderness and recreation areas.
  • Click here for maps of proposed wilderness and recreation areas.
There aren't substantial differences between the final version of the bill and the original proposal that's been debated since Sen. Tester introduced it in July 2009.

- The bill would mandate 70,000 acres of mechanical treatment on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and 30,000 acres of mechanical treatment on the Three Rivers District of the Kootenai National Forest over 15 years (not 10 years as originally proposed).

- It would designate 666,260 acres of wilderness (2,800 acres less than originally proposed).

- The U.S. Forest Service would implement large watershed and forest restoration projects each year over 15 years, prioritizing projects in the wildland-urban interface and watersheds with high road density on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and the Three Rivers District of the Kootenai National Forest.

- The bill would designate 369,501 acres of recreation areas.

According to the AP, the architect of the measure, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, has been working with senior Republicans on the panel to line up the 60 votes needed to defeat a filibuster promised by Republicans. "We remain cautiously optimistic," Inouye spokesman Rob Blumenthal was quoted as saying.

Critics of the bill are criticizing Tester for what Montana Republican Party Chairman Will Deschamps is calling a "legislative deal with the devil."

"Montanans rejected his wilderness legislation, which he couldn't even get passed in Committee," Deschamps said in a statement. "Now, in some smoke-filled back room, he's managed to get Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to add it to the last bus leaving the station..."

Rep. Denny Rehberg had this to say: “This is government at its worst. Montanans have had zero input on this new wilderness bill. It hasn't even had a public hearing in Congress." (Actually, it did—before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last December.)

Matthew Koehler, director of the WildWest Institute, called the tactic "underhanded" when word leaked late last week that Tester was hoping to latch his forest bill onto the omnibus bill.

But supporters of the bill appear to be standing behind it. Sherm Anderson, for one, owner of Sun Mountain Lumber in Deer Lodge, says if the bill passes as part of an omnibus package the ends would justify the means.

“I don’t have any real problems with that at all," Anderson tells the Indy. "Obviously, if you were to go into that bill and look at it there are probably hundreds of other items from other senators lumped into it. That’s kind of the way business is done.”

There are a couple other Montana-related items in the omnibus bill. Among them, the bill would direct $40 million to the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Fund for ecological restoration treatments (page 824). Congress originally funded the program last year. The new money could have big implications for the Blackfoot, Clearwater and Swan River valleys. For more on that check out the Southwestern Crown Collaborative.

And the bill includes an appropriation of $771,000 for an "Emergency Operations Center" for Missoula County (page 684).

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