Democrat Jon Tester has tried to steer a middle course in his first term in the Senate between safeguarding Montana's natural beauty and protecting its economic interests as he sees them -- whether that means allowing wolf hunting or opening new areas of the forest to logging.
But Republicans are betting that the senator has failed to prove to Montanans that he will buck his party to protect them from environmental regulations, which many oppose both on principle and because the state's economy depends on industries that demand ready access to natural resources, such as agriculture, energy production, timber and wilderness recreation. They hope this will help Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) defeat Tester in what is already one of the marquee political matchups of 2012.
No one should be better positioned than Tester to understand the concerns of his rural constituency. A third-generation Montanan farmer from Big Sandy, Mont., a town of 750, Tester still flies cross-country every weekend when Congress is in session and spent the bulk of last week on his Case tractor trying to get his spring planting done before his congressional work resumed.
But while Tester has parted ways with coastal Democrats on a number of issues, including a bill that would have created a path to citizenship for the foreign-born children of illegal immigrants, he stood out last month as the only swing-state Democrat up for re-election next year to vote against four different attempts to limit U.S. EPA's power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
One of the amendments he voted against was even sponsored by Montana's other senator, Democrat Max Baucus.
"I didn't like them," said Tester, when asked about the unsuccessful amendments, which were offered as attachments to an unrelated bill making its way through the Senate. "I don't think that they got us where we need to be."
Tester said his support for EPA's regulatory authority is not unconditional. "It does matter how it is applied, and there has to be common sense applied to any regulation that is put forth," he said.
But the senator said he has met several times with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to discuss EPA's greenhouse gas plans, and he believes that the agency is crafting rules that are generally practical and would not put undue pressure on his state's industries.
"I don't want to give her too much credit -- we may disagree at some point in time -- but she seems to approach things from a pretty well-founded perspective," he said. Tester said he had made the administration aware of some of his concerns, including that other countries should share in the responsibility of limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
Tester said his desire to allow EPA to move forward -- if cautiously -- on climate change is part of his overall desire to protect the Montanan way of life and landscape. He noted that changing temperatures may be contributing to widespread bark beetle infestations across the Rocky Mountain region, which have devastated millions of acres of forest.
"Look down when you are flying over Montana, and you will see a brown forest. It is very depressing," he said.
Montana is known for its libertarian ethos, but Tester said that some level of regulation might be necessary.
"It's really about responsibility," he said. "It's about future generations. It's about making sure that they have opportunity that our parents and grandparents [gave] us. And I think common sense regulation works. It works to keep our air clean. It works to keep our water clean. It works to make sure we have opportunities for our kids and our grandkids, and leave this place in as good or better shape than we got it from our parents."
'Not a big fan of the federal government'
But Republicans say that carbon dioxide regulations are not at all popular in Montana, especially as fossil and biofuels production gains prominence as a source of employment.
"No one calls it cap and trade here. We call it cap and tax," said Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana Republican Party. "And I say that speaking about Montana, not just about the party."
"This is a state that is not a big fan of the federal government imposing new regulations," he added. "This is a state that is not a big fan of taking away our coal resources."
Montana's nickname is "the Treasure State" in honor of its vast mineral reserves, among them oil, natural gas and coal, and Greenwood said that the southeastern part of the state especially has hoped that new coal leasing would bring jobs.
Carbon restrictions are also problematic, he said, because the rural nature of the state makes public transportation impractical.
"There really is not a functional way to live in Montana that doesn't involve driving," Greenwood said.
While Greenwood and Brian Barrett, a spokesman for Rehberg, said they had not made decisions yet about issue ads or campaign expenditures, they maintained that energy and climate change would be a prominent issue in the election because it resonates with Montana voters.
"Of the issues we have to choose from, Tester's support for the environmentalists on cap and tax issues is one of his chief vulnerabilities," Greenwood said.
Climate change is far from the only environmental issue that matters to the state's voters, and while Tester has been more in line with the state's pro-development opinions on several of those, Republicans hope that will cut both ways, hurting him with environmentalist donors.
A prime example is Tester's role in successfully attaching language to a government spending bill that will allow Montana and Idaho to move ahead with their plans to permit some wolf hunting.
Once extinct in Montana, wolves were reintroduced in the state in the mid-1990s and have since grown to an estimated population of 1,700 animals. Yet the wolf has been listed under the Endangered Species Act, which protects it from hunting.
The idea of removing those protections has become almost as popular among Montana voters as reducing the national debt, said Tester, "and you know how big of an issue that is."
"These guys are the top of the food chain," Tester added. "Quite frankly, they can raise hell with a flock of sheep or a herd of elk or a herd of cattle or wherever you want to go. And they had been -- because they need to be managed."
While Tester had bipartisan support for his wolf rider, notably from House Interior and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), Rehberg did not support it, instead pushing a much broader approach that would have prevented the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from participating in the approval of state management programs for the animal, which would have been delisted throughout the country.
"Delisting nationwide had a lot of support in the House," Rehberg told E&E Daily earlier this week. "I was trying to remove the bureaucracy and turn it back to the state. The ultimate compromise was to turn it back to the state, but the secretary [of Interior] still has the ultimate authority. So there's still that involvement."
Tester said Rehberg's broader approach would not have been viable in the Senate and suggested the Republican avoided supporting the rider solely to preserve wolves as a political issue.
Rehberg said the wolf issue is settled, as far as the 2012 election is concerned, but Greenwood said that might not be the case.
"The more we can push the wolf issue, the more it puts Tester in a position where we have to choose between his donors and his voters," said Greenwood, arguing that out-of-state environmental supporters would blame Tester when Montana's state officials began allowing wolf hunts again.
"That will continue to put Senator Tester in a position where he feels pressure from the people who want him to be a progressive environmentalist and the people whose vote he is trying to get," he said.
Some environmentalists inside Montana oppose allowing wolves to be hunted, saying the perception that wolves are a threat to domestic animals, deer and elk is not based in fact.
"There's been a concerted campaign of disinformation from some people in the hunting community and the livestock community to kind of paint the wolf as the culprit for everything that's going wrong," said Bob Clark, associate regional representative for the Sierra Club, who is based in Missoula, Mont. "It's irrational."
Clark said that deer and elk populations had actually grown in the years since wolves appeared on the scene.
Still, he said environmentalists are generally more accepting of Tester's approach to wolf population management, which still provides some federal protections for the animal, than of Rehberg's sweeping proposal.
Enviro groups working to oppose Rehberg
Clark said he expects environmentalists to still vigorously support Tester.
"The key thing here to realize is the threat. It's not just that Tester is a good candidate -- though he is -- and he's a good senator. How terribly bad Rehberg would be in that position is what will motivate people in my opinion to work for Tester," he said.
Land Tawney, president of Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, said his group of Montana sportsmen supports Tester's wolf compromise.
Further, he said he was impressed with the process that led Tester to draft the "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act" with input from some conservationists, sportsmen and the timber industry. The bill, which would designate the first new wilderness in Montana in more than a quarter century, would also offer some new access for timber development. It has the support of a segment of the environmental and lumber sectors.
Tawney said that was only recently possible.
"I'm a fifth generation Montanan, and I grew up in the conservation community, and I grew up watching the conservation community and the timber industry really fight over management of our forests," he said. "I would say, it was mostly because of the practices at that time that the timber industry was taking. They were at loggerheads, really not talking to each other and despising each other and there was a major war that was going on."
"Having timber companies and conservation groups in the same room, talking about a way forward is something that 10 years ago you wouldn't even have thought about," he said.
Rehberg opposes the bill. When Tester added it to a spending bill in December that then failed to become law, Rehberg criticized him to his supporters on a broadly attended conference call.
"Frankly, sneaking brand new legislation into a massive omnibus spending bill isn't the Montana way," he said. (Greenwire, Dec. 21, 2010)
Rehberg continues to say that the bill would only guarantee that new protected wilderness areas would be designated and not that local timber producers would have access to new resources.
"It's not being honest with the people of Montana," he said. "Put wilderness in the title, and then we'll debate it from that perspective."
Despite his praise of Tester, Clark said the Sierra Club opposes the bill for the opposite reason than the one Rehberg cites -- because it does too much for the timber industry and not enough for protection of wilderness areas.
"We will offer suggestions and ways to improve it, but we can't support it as it is," he said. Clark cited problems with the bill's provisions allowing a certain numbers of trees to be cut and "subpar wilderness designations."
But Tester said he was comfortable with the level of support his forestry bill has attracted.
"If there's folks out there who think that I'm not doing things right, that's OK. They need to vote accordingly," he said.
"If you're one of those folks who don't think you should ever cut a tree, or don't think you should ever manage wildlife, that's not who I am," he added. "So if that's who you thought you were electing to the U.S. Senate, that's not who I am."
If Montana voters decide to replace him after 2012, he said, he can always go back to his farm.