Helena Independent Record: Advocates keep up push for Tester forest bill

Supporters of Sen. Jon Tester’s forest bill remain hopeful that the measure can be passed despite a tough re-election fight for the first-term senator.

Conservation groups and logging companies continue to push for the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which would designate more than 670,000 acres of wilderness on three national forests while mandating 8,000 acres per year of logging for 15 years.

Tony Colter, a spokesman for Sun Mountain Lumber in Deer Lodge, said the owners of Montana’s eight remaining timber mills are strongly supportive of the bill.

“It’s a critical thing for us in the timber industry,” he said. “We’re not giving up on it.”

Tester’s bill has been on the table since 2007, when he first proposed the measure as a compromise between logging and environmental groups. It calls for new wilderness designations on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Kootenai and Lolo national forests. It was tailored on a partnership of environmental groups and timber companies that worked on the proposal to end years of stalemate over forest management.

The bill has been extremely controversial, with motorized access, mining, ranching and other groups opposing its wilderness provisions. And county commissioners in Beaverhead and Madison counties remain sharply opposed, saying they were left out of the bill’s drafting yet would have most of the wilderness areas in their counties.

Garth Haugland, a Beaverhead County commissioner, said Tester’s staff hasn’t contacted them for over two years while still pushing for the bill over the county’s objections. And he said their county still has serious concerns with the bill because of its impact on county industries, especially grazing on public lands.

“Why would we create more areas that are essentially locked up from any productive use?” he said. “The public land grazers are very concerned over the additional restrictions that are placed on them to graze cattle in a wilderness area.”

Haugland said Beaverhead County still sees deep problems with the bill’s logging provisions as well. He noted that while the wilderness is permanent, the logging projects will still be subject to appeals and lawsuits to shut them down and have a sunset of 15 years.

“We don’t see how additional wilderness areas will benefit the tax structure of Beaverhead County,” he said.

Dave Schulz, a Madison County commissioner, said they remain opposed to the measure for similar reasons.

“There are no promises we’ll cut a tree,” he said.

Tester has attached the measure as a rider on several pieces of legislation, but in all those instances it didn’t pass. But he has said he’ll keep looking for opportunities.

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