Ravalli Republic: Viewpoint: Forest jobs bill built on trust, strikes balance

Montana’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act (FJRA) again came close to passage last month. The bill aimed at creating jobs and improving forest management enjoys strong support in Montana and has earned crucial support in the U.S. Senate.

But as FJRA gains momentum, opponents appear to be shifting tactics. They can no longer pretend the bill doesn’t exist. And because so many Montanans have united around FJRA’s collaborative approach to creating jobs and resolving national-forest conflicts, outright opposition has become politically imprudent.

Instead, we now hear proposals to change the forest jobs bill by requiring completion of the logging and thinning before resource-protection provisions take effect. Known as “trigger language,” this suggestion is a red-herring – a made-in-Washington poison-pill provision that Congress has rejected time and again as unworkable.

In other words, if you can’t stop FJRA on the merits, attach a provision that would effectively kill it.

The whole idea of trigger language is borrowed from epic forest fights of the past, the same fights that many of us have left behind. And the most important thing everybody needs to know about the bill is that the many Montanans who’ve had a hand in writing it are focused on Montana’s future, not its past.

We want a future that guarantees 100,000 acres of timber harvest over 15 years. We want a future where forest restoration projects are judged in court not just by short-term impacts to the land, but also by the long-term benefit to the land. We want a future that ensures our clean water and wildlife won’t be held hostage by partisan politics. The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act suggests that we advance these solutions now instead of wasting more time fighting over trigger language.

For decades, Montanans fought to stalemate over how to manage our national forests. Some wanted more logging, others more designated wilderness. Off-road vehicle enthusiasts wanted more places to ride, while hikers pushed for more areas closed to machines. No interest group or industry in Montana has enough clout to overwhelm the others, but they all have the ability to say no. So the us-versus-them, conflict-ridden forest politics produces nothing but gridlock and failure.

Stalemate translates to lost opportunity for all of us who depend on the forests for our livelihoods and quality of life. Stalemate robs us of any real ability to shape the destiny of our communities. Stalemate produces the same answer to every need, desire and opportunity in the woods: “No.”

That’s so frustrating.

Frustration is what brought together Montanans from diverse interests together in communities from Troy to Seeley Lake to Deer Lodge and beyond. We weren’t sure at first whether we could find a better way, but we knew we could do better than the unacceptable status quo.

When Montanans stopped shouting and started talking – and listening – we found to our delight that the common ground was bigger than anyone had imagined. Why is this such a surprise? Loggers like to hunt and fish on the weekend as much as anyone. Wilderness wanderers need paychecks, too. We all need clean water. The fact is most of us make use of our national forests in several different ways.

By talking, we learned that many things that people and groups want from the forest aren’t mutually exclusive. We also found not everything should boil down to election-year partisan politics. Also, it turns out we don’t have to agree on everything to agree on many things.

We found agreement in collaborative proposals for forest management in the Yaak, the Blackfoot-Clearwater region and the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National forest. The proposals are tailored to specific areas but include a combination of timber harvest, forest restoration, recreation – motorized and non-motorized – and wildland protections.

The agreements strike balance – and not just between timber production and wilderness protection. For example, fewer than 45 miles of roads or trails would be closed to motorized vehicles under FJRA – leaving thousands of miles open to off-road-vehicle enthusiasts. In fact, for the first time, FJRA would establish permanent recreation areas for snowmobilers – including boundaries suggested by local snowmobilers. That’s just an example of giving up a little to gain a lot.

Most important, by working together, we developed trust in one another. Trust was the catalyst for the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. Trust is the glue that holds us together and helps the FJRA coalition grow. Trust creates hope for the future.

That trust translates into a commitment by a broad coalition of Montanans to continue working together – in our communities, in court when necessary and in the forests – well after this forest jobs bill becomes law. Montanans who support this partnership trust one another and our ability to teach Washington, D.C., a thing or two about solving problems, rather than exploiting them.

Anybody who tries to undermine this trust creates peril for Montana’s struggling timber industry and the good jobs it provides. The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act will create logging and forest-restoration jobs. Trust the leaders of our timber industry when they tell you that.

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