Sen. Jon Tester's (D-Mont.) sweeping proposal to designate Montana's first new wilderness in more than a quarter-century in exchange for timber harvesting across 100,000 acres of national forest in the state received a key endorsement from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, potentially paving the way for the bill's passage in the remaining days of the Senate calendar.
In a letter last week to Tester, Vilsack said the bill's requirement to "mechanically treat" 100,000 acres of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai national forests over the next 15 years is "ambitious, but sustainable and achievable."
While Vilsack made similar comments during a visit to Montana in March, his letter codifies the agency's position on the bill and puts to rest most of the concerns the Forest Service expressed at a committee hearing on the bill last December (E&E Daily, Dec. 18, 2009.)
Vilsack said he still had concerns that funding the treatments -- in the form of stewardship contracts, timber sales contracts or other means -- could siphon resources from other agency regions.
"Since there are many high-priority programs throughout the National Forest System, we cannot shift funding from other regions to fund these treatments," Vilsack said. "I support the inclusion of language in this proposed legislation that states it will not impact funds from other regions."
The bill, which has languished in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for more than a year, faces little time for markup and consideration on the chamber floor, said Aaron Murphy, a spokesman for Tester.
"There may not be an opportunity for an ENR markup by year's end, so Sen. Tester is looking at all potential legislative avenues," Murphy said in an e-mail. "All of it is still uncertain right now."
But the possibility of attaching the measure as a rider to another Senate legislative package has raised criticism from some who argue that the bill's logging mandate still lacks the support of the committee leadership and some environmental groups.
A committee draft of the legislation that stripped out the logging quotas was quickly panned by Tester, who called the draft "dead on arrival." He released his own revised draft in June that restored the logging provisions with some minor changes (Land Letter, June 17).
"They're going to try to get this thing passed no matter what sort of underhanded techniques they need to use," said Matthew Koehler of the Last Best Place Wildlands Campaign, based in Missoula, Mont., which opposes the legislation.
Committee staff and Tester's office currently do not have an agreement on the proposal, said ENR Committee spokesman Bill Wicker, adding that the issue may be a moot point given the Senate's busy schedule. "It remains mighty speculative whether we will be able to get in one last markup before this Congress gavels to a close," he said.
A 'model' elsewhere?
But Tester's bill has maintained support among other environmental groups, including the Montana Wilderness Association, the National Wildlife Federation and Trout Unlimited, as well as timber companies and recreation outfitters -- an unlikely partnership that could help make the bill a "model" for other public lands proposals, Vilsack said.
"The holistic package of mechanical treatments, wilderness designations, and job creation, along with the collaborative approach and hard work of the stakeholders in Montana, and your work directly with the Forest Service, ensure that this legislation can serve as a model for similar efforts elsewhere," he wrote.
Martin Nie, a professor of natural resources policy at the University of Montana, said that if Tester's bill becomes a legislative model for wilderness proposals, it could help other similar bills gain political traction in Washington, D.C.
"Perhaps the most important question related to Tester's bill is the precedent that would be established in legislating timber treatment mandates on national forests," Nie said. "What might those treatment mandates look like in other proposals if such legislation is now politically acceptable?"
The support of the Forest Service -- which last year warned that Tester's bill could lead to the agency's "balkanization" -- could clear the way for other "place-based" proposals, such as Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden's (D) "Oregon Eastside Forests Restoration, Old Growth Protection and Jobs Act," which promotes active management of 8.3 million acres in six national forests east of the Cascades.
"A lot of groups are paying particular attention to Senator Tester's bill and how it is received in D.C., as it will send an important cue to these other initiatives and how they might move forward," Nie said.
Tester's "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act," which also seeks to create about 680,000 acres of wilderness in the state and allow an additional 336,000 acres of special management areas to be used for motorized recreation, is among nearly a dozen public lands proposals awaiting congressional markup whose fate will not be determined until after the Nov. 2 elections, observers say.
With little room on the Senate calendar after the election, wilderness advocates are looking for alternative means of getting the proposals passed, said Paul Spitler, national wilderness campaigns associate director for the Wilderness Society.
In addition to bills awaiting markup, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee has passed more than 75 land and water bills that all still await action by the full chamber, Spitler said.
"With the tactics of a few obstructionist senators, it's very difficult to take those bills up," said Spitler, adding that his group is still pushing the Senate leadership to pursue a public lands omnibus package similar to one in 2009 that designated more than 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states and established three new national park units.
"I would assume senators that have bills they'd like to see passed are going to look to whatever means possible to get those bills signed into law," he said.
The clock is also ticking for Western forests, which are facing a variety of health issues associated with climate change, a pine-beetle infestation and other influences, said Vilsack, who recommended the agency and Congress work together to promote a viable biomass energy sector, in part from beetle-damaged trees.
"Markets for woody biomass could be critical in financing treatments in areas with beetle-killed timber," he said in his letter. "Since timber impacted by beetles will deteriorate over time, I believe an ambitious ramp up to perform mechanical treatment would be beneficial."
Click here to read Vilsack's letter.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated that Tester’s bill would create 336,000 acres of special management areas to be used for logging or motorized recreation. The bill only calls for motorized recreation on these acres.