Long road ahead

Sen. Jon Tester unveiled his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act at a timber mill last Friday to a small crowd consisting mostly of those who were responsible for crafting the legislation—a few timber mill operators, a few conservation organizations and a few citizens. Perhaps that, as much as anything, tells the story. The first bill to designate new wilderness in Montana in two decades couldn't draw more than 60 people to the initial announcement although thousands of Montanans have long been passionately involved in wilderness and roadless issues for almost 40 years. It could well portend a very rough road ahead for Tester's bill.

The challenge for Tester and the bill's supporters is to build a groundswell of support, but the veil of secrecy surrounding the measure, which was only lifted last Friday, has not worked in their favor. Already a number of wilderness advocates have panned the measure, and they're joined by motorized recreationists and county commissioners from the affected areas who are unhappy about any number of the bill's provisions.

Wilderness advocates, for instance, see the de-designation of 12 Wilderness Study Areas as un-doing the work of Montana's late Sen. Lee Metcalf, who has a wilderness area named after him to honor his dedication and accomplishments. Metcalf's legislation from the late '70s requires those areas to be managed to preserve their wilderness characteristics. But Tester's bill, while designating new wilderness, will remove that protection and open the areas to logging, motorized use and development.

But wilderness was seldom mentioned at the press conference. Instead, Tester and most of the speakers focused on its utility to the logging industry, which Tester says is "in crisis." Under the provisions of the bill, the U.S. Forest Service is mandated to log nearly 100,000 acres of forest over the next 10 years. The key word here is "mandated." The Beaverhead-Deerlodge portion of the bill, for instance, says 7,000 acres a year must be harvested from the forest as part of "landscape scale" forest treatments. Theoretically, the revenue generated from the sale of those logs will be reinvested in the forest to improve and maintain fisheries, fix trails, remove culverts and stabilize or remove roads.

But therein lies the rub.

As Tester admitted at the press conference, "If nobody wants to bid on these, we are in trouble." The trouble, however, is already here. Much of Montana is now covered with dead and dying forests due to drought, warmer winters and longer, hotter summers that have spawned an exponential explosion of bark beetles. Wood supply isn't the problem—it's the lack of demand for wood products. With the most severe economic recession in 60 years and the concurrent collapse of the housing market, there is simply no demand for the lumber, no matter how many acres are mandated to be cut. And without a market, there will be no revenues for the restoration work the "stewardship" logging is supposed to generate. When questioned by a reporter about what would happen if the market didn't turn up, Tester simply replied: "It's gotta happen."

But of course, it doesn't have to happen. In fact, we may never return to the days prior to the bursting of the "housing bubble," which was driven by the highly speculative and hugely risky financial practices that precipitated the economic collapse. Instead of demand for new houses, thousands of Americans continue to lose their existing homes through foreclosures every week.

Wishing and hoping aside, nothing will happen unless the bill first makes it into law—and that, like the return of the housing market—is anything but certain. As Tester admitted: "First it has to make it out of the Senate."

Finding enough support to get it out of the Senate will require senators from urban areas to agree that mandated logging levels of national forests—and these forests belong to all the people, not just the locals—is a good idea. Will that happen? Well, according to Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies: "Congress, even under Republican control, rejected efforts to mandate logging levels because Congress understood that changing conditions on the ground make it very unwise to mandate from Washington, D.C., how much logging should take place on national forests in Montana."

And then there's the House of Representatives, where populous states have disproportionate power. Montana, meanwhile, only has Rep. Denny Rehberg, who, besides being in the Republican minority, has a long history of repudiating new wilderness areas. It's also unlikely that hard-core environmentalists in the House, such as Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., who chairs the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands through which the bill would likely have to pass, will be moved to increase timber supply through mandated logging at the expense of existing Wilderness Study Areas.

Plus, when it comes to forest stewardship, the timber industry in Montana doesn't have much to crow about. While Tester was making his announcement, I was high in the Mission Mountains Wilderness, having backpacked into the untouched forest where the huge old-growth larch and spruce still stand, the pure water still flows and the diversity of flora and fauna abounds. From the very edge of the wilderness boundary all the way down into the Swan Valley, however, the endless stump fields bear silent testimony to forest "management"—where all the big trees somehow managed to make their way to the mills.

Perhaps Tester and his small band of collaborators can convince Congress that times have changed, that more logging is beneficial to forests and that release of existing wilderness study areas for quid pro quo wilderness is a good idea. On the other hand, Congress may just tell Tester that there are plenty of dead and dying trees on already roaded lands for Montana's mills, and the nation's dwindling wildlands are too important to trade away to more logging, ATVs, and development. Only time will tell. The Cave:Advertising:02 Production Art:IndyLogoDingbat2002.tifB:'er about",,"")>

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com

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