POLITICS:

Mont. Senate race could ignite debate over natural resources

Montana Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg's expected announcement tomorrow that he will run for Senate in 2012 promises to shine a spotlight on wilderness in a state known for fiery debates over natural resource policy.

Rehberg, a six-term congressman, has firmly opposed a proposal by incumbent Sen. Jon Tester (D) to create new wilderness in the state while boosting the timber industry and promoting motorized recreation.

Other natural resources issues including national monuments, wolf management and oil and gas drilling could come to the forefront as the two spar over their environmental records.

"They'll be important," Tester said this week when asked about competing with Rehberg. "Montana is a natural resources state."

Ground zero for that debate will be Tester's "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act," a proposal he introduced last Congress to couple new wilderness designations with mandatory timber harvests.

The package enjoyed broad support from environmental groups, timber companies, the Forest Service and some county commissioners but drew dogged opposition from Rehberg and some conservationists, who argued the bill was crafted behind closed doors and failed to address the needs of Montanans.

The Senate nearly approved the proposal in December as part of an appropriations package.

"The Montanans I heard from are just as opposed to the legislation itself as they are to the underhanded tactics being used to force it through Congress," Rehberg said after organizing a tele-town hall meeting in December on the bill.

His opposition to the proposal began much earlier -- and drew speculation that Rehberg was mounting a campaign run.

Tester, when asked about Rehberg's criticism of the bill amid reports of his Senate run, said, "Now we know why."

Political observers say there are perils associated with stirring the wilderness debate in Montana, pointing to a wilderness bill by then-Sen. John Melcher (D-Mont.) that was vetoed in 1988 by President Reagan at the urging of then-Republican Senate candidate Conrad Burns.

Burns -- with Rehberg as his campaign manager -- defeated Melcher later that year.

"Rehberg seems to think there are some political gains to make by opposing the bill," said Robert Saldin, a political science professor at the University of Montana. "Rehberg in general doesn't look favorably on new wilderness and is rightfully seen as a lot less interested in conservation than Tester."

Tester's bill is rare in that it garnered support from both major environmental groups, timber groups and some outfitters. But in reaching such a broad constituency he also risks alienating some liberal environmentalists, Saldin said.

"They're not going to go vote for Rehberg, but they may decide not to vote at all," Saldin said.

But Rehberg may have less to gain by opposing the wilderness package than Burns did when Melcher's bill was proposed, since Tester's measure includes mandatory timber harvests.

"He's not going to be able to go back to the same well in the timber industry," said a Montana Democratic strategist. Rehberg would still gain points with some off-highway vehicle users and tea party voters, who are a very different coalition than the timber industry, he added.

"[The bill] will be the marquee natural resource issue, but really for Jon it's a jobs issue," the strategist said.

Tester this week said he will reintroduce the bill this session and did not have any plans to change his message. "It's a Montana solution for a Montana problem crafted by Montanans," he said.

Wolves, monuments

The two candidates also will be expected to continue fighting the federal government to allow state management of wolves after a federal judge last year ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to return the animals to the Endangered Species List.

Rehberg has taken a more strident position by introducing a bill that would exempt wolves from the Endangered Species Act, while Tester has taken a more restrained approach by asking the Interior Department to re-engage the Rocky Mountain states and approve Montana's proposed "conservation hunt" (Greenwire, Jan. 27).

Rehberg also may choose to highlight an Interior memo leaked last year suggesting the president might consider designating a new 2.5-million-acre national monument in northern Montana.

Both Tester and Rehberg sounded the alarm over the document, with Rehberg introducing a bill that would strip the president of his authority to designate monuments under the Antiquities Act.

"Opponents blew that out of proportion once," said Bob Ekey, assistant vice president for northwest conservation at the Wilderness Society in Bozeman, Mont. "There's no reason to think they won't try to blow it out of proportion again."

Ekey also said Rehberg has less to gain from opposing Tester's wilderness bill because the timber industry has shifted more toward a restoration focus.

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