Seeing the Forest For the Trees 

Sen. Jon Tester introduced his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act to mixed reviews. What should we make of his first significant legislation?

Sen. Jon Tester introduced his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act to mixed reviews. What should we make of his first significant legislation?

Last Saturday, just one day after he introduced his much-anticipated Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, Sen. Jon Tester stood before a crowd of 100 at the Seeley Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, and pitched the bill to the rest of Montana. As Tester delivered his remarks, the Lolo National Forest, the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Swan Range—all treasured areas impacted by his proposal—stood over his shoulders in the distance. Directly behind Tester, another significant image dominated the audience's viewshed—an empty logging truck displaying a giant sign that read, "Thank You Senator Tester."

Tester told the crowd the scenery was fitting. If Congress passes the junior senator's most significant legislation to date, Montanans should expect more wilderness, more recreation and more jobs. As the name of Tester's bill implies, the goal is to put loggers back to work by harvesting trees and restoring the forest.

Tester's message played well in a town hit hard by lagging timber prices, and logging companies laud the bill's merits. Thousands of loggers have lost jobs with lumber demand waning and Tester's bill—if it passes—offers them guaranteed work for the next 10 years.

Environmental groups invited to help craft the bill also say it's an encouraging example of once-bitter rivals working together to save Montana's wilderness. In exchange for logging certain areas, timber companies must invest in stewardship projects that will help ensure the long-term health of the forests.

But the bill's critics, including one prominent former Tester supporter and environmental groups left out of the planning process, aren't ready to join hands just yet. They argue the stewardship model isn't financially sustainable, and relies heavily on appropriations from a separate bill. They claim Tester broke campaign promises and decided to work with only a select group of stakeholders to develop the bill in secret, a process that excluded public input. They also worry about the bill's legal precedent.

Tester's own staff admits that the senator's introduction last week only serves as the start of a long political process. Now the state—and Congress—gets to see if Tester's bill sees the forest for the trees.

The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act affects three areas of public land: The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest (BDNF), the Three Rivers District of the Kootenai National Forest and the Seeley Lake District of the Lolo National Forest (see map on page 18).

The Beaverhead-Deerlodge portion of the bill draws primarily from two sources: the U.S. Forest Service's revised management plan, which was approved on January 14, and a draft proposal by the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership, a consortium of eight conservation organizations and timber companies, including Sun Mountain Lumber, Montana Wilderness Association, Montana Trout Unlimited, National Wildlife Federation, Roseburg Forest Products, Pyramid Mountain Lumber, Smurfit-Stone Container and RY Timber.

Tester's bill follows the Forest Service's plan in regards to where loggers can cut trees, but mandates that the agency take at least 7,000 acres per year for 10 years. In addition, when the Forest Service bids those jobs, they'll come attached to a series of larger restoration projects of at least 50,000 acres, meaning the company that cuts the trees will also have to fix roads, improve culverts or clean up streams.

With regard to the BDNF, the bill also creates areas the Forest Service must manage for recreation. It dumps seven Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Wilderness Study Areas totaling 76,000 acres, and creates five BLM Wilderness Areas comprising 59,000 acres. Lastly, the bill designates just over half a million acres of Forest Service land as wilderness.

In the Kootenai National Forest, Tester based the bill on a proposal brought forth by the Three Rivers Challenge, a group that includes the Yaak Valley Forest Council, Chapel Cedar Works, Lincoln County Snow Kats, Kootenai Ridge Riders ATV Club, timber advocate Wayne Hirst, logger Kurt Yarson, the Troy Snowmobile Club and Linehan Outfitters and Guides. Like the Beaverhead-Deerlodge portion of the bill, the Kootenai follows the Forest Service's plan for where loggers can operate, but mandates an annual average harvest of 3,000 acres over the next decade. These trees will also come attached to stewardship projects. The plan establishes a Three Rivers Special Management Area and directs the Forest Service to study ATV routes. It also designates 30,000 acres of wilderness on Roderick Mountain.

For the Lolo portion of the bill, Tester relied on a proposal from the Blackfoot Challenge, which includes The Wilderness Society, Pyramid Lumber, Clearwater Resource Council, Rich Outfitters, Rolling Stone Ranch, Montana Wilderness Association, Bill Wall Sustainability and Orville Daniels, a retired supervisor for the Lolo National Forest. The Lolo portion follows Forest Service recommendations for where timber harvests can occur, and reserves an area for snowmobile use until the next revision of the Lolo Forest Plan. The bill also designates an additional 87,000 acres for the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Mission Mountain Wilderness.

In addition to these three parts, the bill also authorizes funding for biomass facilities for materials harvested in Montana. The Forest Service will be asked to study whether the sustainable development of biomass supplies is feasible in the three forests.

Although the bill designates new wilderness and recreation areas, and addresses a growing pine beetle epidemic that has decimated some 3 million acres of forest in the state, Tester says it is first and foremost about jobs. It's no coincidence he officially announced his plan at RY Timber, a company that's currently running at 60 percent capacity three times a week.

"The Forest Jobs bill will create good new jobs now," Tester said. "It will restore our forests and get people working again in the woods."

Tester's office was unable to provide specific numbers on how many jobs will be created. Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy says it depends on each stewardship project.

"But, for some perspective," Murphy says, "in 2007, roughly 9,700 people were directly employed by the timber industry. There have been numerous layoffs and curtailments since. This legislation aims to retain those jobs."

Tester's bill differs from other timber sales in that trees will be harvested as a part of a stewardship project, or what the bill refers to as "landscape scale restoration projects." In other words, the Forest Service trades timber for services such as culvert removal, road obliteration or stream cleanup.

But even supporters of Tester's bill question whether the proposed tradeoff is financially or legally feasible.

In May, two researchers from the University of Montana's College of Forestry and Conservation, Martin Nie and Michael Fiebig, published a report questioning the ability of "place-based legislation" like Tester's bill to resolve multiple use conflicts in national forests. As a case study, the duo investigated the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership's (BDP) plan, which plays a key role in Tester's bill.

"The [Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership] is to be admired for its focus on sustainable forests and communities, and for understanding the benefits of having a functional timber industry in the state" Fiebig and Nie wrote. "But we are skeptical that the BDP bill, and place-based legislation in general, is the best way to secure these values. It is, in short, the wrong tool for the right job."

The report questions the type of precedent the act would set—"Will economic development provisions...become de facto requirements?"—and raises legal questions about the Forest Service's role in the deal. For the latter, Fiebig and Nie cite stewardship projects in Alaska and California that left the Forest Service beholden to two contradictory laws and open to lawsuits from everybody.

When asked about Tester's bill, the Forest Service declined to address any potential legal issues. "We don't comment on any of the legislation," says Sonja Shadow, spokesperson for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. "We just make recommendations in the plan based on the best science. The specialists that are here in the forest are going to utilize and put in place the directives and the laws and the regulations that they have to follow."

In another part of their report, Fiebig and Nie question the ability of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge proposal to fund itself.

"For good reason, the partnership wants to free the BDNF from the highly uncertain congressional appropriations process, a process that chronically under funds the [Forest Service] and its needed appropriations work," they write. "But the BDNF is a lodgepole pine dominated forest and some people are skeptical that there is enough economic value in such forests to make stewardship contracting viable on such a massive scale."

The plan's proponents say the bill is financially feasible, as long as the stewardship projects are well planned. According to Gordy Sanders, resource manager at Pyramid Lumber, a stewardship project can turn a profit if it controls two variables—location and extraction method. If the mill is close to the logging site, and the loggers don't use helicopters or other expensive extraction equipment, it's possible for the logging company to make money despite depressed timber prices, Sanders says.

Even if that's the case, Tester's bill may also rely on funding from the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, which Congress passed in March.

"[The law] created a pot of money that has the potential to fund portions of the required restoration goals," says Jared White, spokesman for The Wilderness Society. "But there's a limited amount of money and a limited amount of projects that can be funded across the country."

Tester's bill appears to align with the criteria listed under the Omnibus bill in that it's collaboratively based, includes monitoring components and leaves the areas safer from wildfire, among other necessities.

"I think we're looking pretty competitive, because we have all the pieces of the puzzle that are needed," White says.

Critics worry that if the Omnibus funding isn't secured and the timber market doesn't rebound, stewardship projects could fall by the wayside.

Tester confirms the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act may rely on Omnibus funds, but say that's not a problem. He points out he sits on the subcommittee that appropriates money to the Forest Service.

"Stewardship is something that's going to help everybody," Tester says.

"I happen to sit on the [Senate Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies]. As more money is needed, we will look at those projects and try to get it. Now, that's taxpayer dollars. But the truth is, what we're doing here is helping to restore the forests, which has a benefit for the public and it helps the economy in the process."

Although the bill has been touted as a collaborative effort, several conservation and ATV organizations say they have been left out of the process and question the bill's precedent.

Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, blasted Tester's bill in a statement.

"With the exception of the decision to designate wilderness, which is a special case, Congress has left most decisions to the discretion of local Forest Service personnel," Garrity says. "Congress has recognized that it is not a body of professional land managers. Senator Tester is saying that the timber industry is now more important than the local Forest Service professionals."

Matthew Koehler, executive director of the WildWest Institute, decries how the bill was crafted.

"We had written The Wilderness Society four or five times in the last nine months requesting that a representative of the WildWest Institute be included in their process, and every single one of our requests were being ignored," Koehler says. "This was always about select groups getting together. They craft legislation in secret. They exclude everyone who disagrees with them and they figure, 'We don't need to include everyone because we have Tester's ear.'"

As for the merits of Tester's proposal, Koehler calls it "irrational and irresponsible."

"To think that somehow we go through this crisis, we inject trillions of dollars to bail out the banks and the builders and the logging industry, and after we inject these trillions of dollars, we're going to go back to the same over-consumption and over-development that got us into this crisis," he says. "That is complete and utter insanity."

Although certain members of the ATV community align with Tester's bill—the Kootenai Ridge Riders ATV Club in Libby support it—others question its wilderness designations and management philosophies.

"There are a lot of things we don't like about this bill," says Russ Ehnes, spokesman for the Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association, a conglomerate of 20 ATV groups across the state. "It appears that even outside the wilderness areas, it puts the management in the hands of Congress and literally ties the hands of the Forest Service."

But perhaps Tester's most vehement criticism comes from a former political supporter. Paul Richards says he dropped out of the 2006 Senate race after Tester promised that he'd protect Montana's remaining roadless areas.

"Not only does the Tester Logging Bill fail to honor that commitment, it does the exact opposite," Richards said in a statement. "The Tester Logging Bill is a well-orchestrated and well-funded assault upon Montana's roadless public wildlands."

Despite the criticism, Tester's office stands by how it crafted the legislation and the level of collaboration.

"The process was—and still is—open to anyone and everyone willing to work together on a plan for Montana's forests and to protect our hunting, fishing and outdoor heritage," says spokesman Murphy.

Murphy adds that Tester held four public listening sessions in Missoula, Townsend, Deer Lodge and Libby, and the public is welcome to send him feedback through the senator's website.

"People have been saying that they've been left out of the process," Tester told the Seeley crowd on Saturday. "Our door'll be open to everybody."

Bethanie Walder, executive director of Wildlands CPR, says there's a bigger question raised by Tester's bill.

"I think there are different questions that the Tester approach raises, but when you balance out everything they're proposing, you ask, 'Do you end up with a healthier ecosystem or not?'" she says. "And that's not entirely clear to me."

Tester obviously believes his bill is the answer. He told the Seeley Lake gathering he hopes to have the bill heard in committee as soon as possible, hopefully by fall. If all goes well, the bill will pass the Senate early next year, possibly as an attachment to other legislation.

"And then," he said, "We'll be off and running."

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