Trying to satisfy everyone from wilderness advocates to timber companies, Sen. Jon Tester has proposed a new model for managing national forests.
The Democrat's controversial proposal, which he has dubbed the "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act" to emphasize its economic aspects rather than its wilderness components, would guide how federal agencies manage large swaths of land in his home state of Montana.
S. 1470 would designate hundreds of thousands of acres as wilderness, while releasing other lands that have been protected as wilderness study areas. The measure would permanently open certain national forest areas to motorized recreation. And -- in the most contentious proposal -- it would require timber harvest on a minimum number of acres each year.
The proposal, long a hot topic in Montana, will garner the Senate spotlight Thursday when the subcommittee that oversees forests takes it up. The panel will hear from federal officials as well as Montana mill owners, county commissioners and the environmental community that has split over the measure.
Tester describes his bill as a common-sense approach that will create jobs in Montana's forests, guarantee access for motorized recreation, protect clean water and keep some of the state's prized backcountry wild. Supporters say it could provide a new path for other states to follow.
Critics say the bill's main purpose is to promote commercial logging and allow local management of national forest lands.
But no one disputes that the legislation would have a profound effect on the future of Montana's national forests.
What the bill does
The 84-page bill would designate about 680,000 acres as wilderness in 25 separate parcels, ranging from 661 Bureau of Land Management acres that would become the "Farlin Creek Wilderness" to 89,798 acres in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest that would become the "Snowcrest Wilderness."
The bill would designate another 336,000 acres in six chunks of national recreation, protection or special management areas. Logging and mining would be restricted but snowmobiles or off-road vehicles would be allowed. The measure also would end wilderness management for several areas that are currently designated as wilderness study areas.
It would require federal agencies to "mechanically treat timber" on a minimum of 70,000 acres of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest over 10 years and at least 30,000 acres of the Three Rivers Ranger District within a decade.
The thinning projects would be focused on areas where roads are already built. The agencies would prepare one environmental impact statement to cover all components of "landscape-scale restoration projects" covering at least 50,000 acres.
Federal agencies would establish resources advisory committees for each landscape-scale project that would include officials from industrial, recreational, conservation and livestock organizations as well as local collaborative forest management groups. The committees would assist the agencies in determining the location for, completing the design of and implementing each project.
Tester says the bill brought together mill owners, conservationists, hunters and motorized users who had fought each other for decades.
"Amid all the shouting, no one got what they wanted," Tester said in a speech on the Senate floor. "And all Montanans and especially our forests suffered for it."
A compromise is necessary because Montana's forests face a crisis, largely due to beetle infestation that has killed off trees and raised the risk of wildfire, Tester said, adding the bill would provide jobs by removing the dead materials, building culverts for fish and restoring streams.
A Forest Service spokesman said the agency currently has no position on the bill. The committee Thursday will hear from Harris Sherman, the Agriculture Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment, and Marcilynn Burke, deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management.
Trout Unlimited, the National Wildlife Federation and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership all have endorsed the bill along with local logging companies. A coalition of environmental organizations led by Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Wild West Institute and many motorized recreationists oppose the measure.
"If it does pass, it'll signify the Democrats are trying to be worse than the Republicans when it comes to public lands in the West -- a race to the bottom," said Mike Garrity, executive director for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
Opponents of the bill say setting logging levels in to law would be an unprecedented and unscientific override of forest planning by federal agency staff. The coalition of groups fighting the bill said the mandated timber levels greatly exceed average levels since the 1950s on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge forest and are 14 times the sustainable level set by the Forest Service. The map that accompanies Tester's bill shows that more than 1 million acres of federally inventoried roadless wildlands would be classified as "timber suitable or open to harvest," the groups say.
Garrity said the timber mandates are counter to policies designed to address past abuses by the Forest Service of over-logging. "All those lessons of the past he's ignoring and saying we have to mandate logging," Garrity said.
Critics also dislike the provisions that would release wildness study areas that were protected under a law sponsored by the late Sen. Lee Metcalf (D-Mont.) and BLM-administered areas that have been protected more than 30 years. They say the wilderness designated is in small and disconnected areas, not well suited to wildlife.
Opponents also say the bill would localize management of national forests. If other lawmakers push similar bills for their states, it could fragment regulations of the country's forests, they argue.
They also say were left out of negotiations that crafted the bill. "Senator Tester claimed they worked with anyone who was willing to work with him," Garrity said. "That's just not true. ... They refused to work with me."
The Snowmobile Alliance of Western States opposes the additional wilderness and says remaining public lands should be left open for recreation.
Showcasing support from the timber industry, Tester unveiled the measure in July at the RY Timber company in Townsend, Mont. Sherman Anderson, president and owner of Sun Mountain Lumber Inc., has been pushing the bill and will praise it at the hearing Thursday. Mill owners say thinning projects will remove dead trees while ensuring the logging infrastructure of the state survives.
Tom Reed of Trout Unlimited said his group supports the bill because the wilderness areas will protect streams and headwaters that are important for fisheries, while the restoration work would also improve rivers. He also said the timber harvest would provide funds for some of those efforts.
Reed said the bill would set a precedent for cooperation without localizing forest management. "Certainly the Forest Service has long relied on local input and I think this actually solidifies that," he said.
Trout Unlimited also supports the proposed logging levels because they would be prioritized in the wildland-urban interface -- not in roadless areas -- and in areas of insect infestation.
"We're not talking about old growth-type huge timber, we're talking principally about lodgepole," Reed said. The mandates are not for boardfeet but rather for acres, so it does not mean the areas will be clear cut, he added.
And the bill strikes the right balance between keeping some of the most pristine habitat as wilderness and releasing some of the wilderness study areas that could be used for other purposes such as mountain biking, Reed said. Because Montana has a number of smaller mountain rangers, "it doesn't make sense to make one huge piece of country wilderness," he said.
Schedule: The hearing is Thursday, Dec. 17, at 2:30 p.m. in 366 Dirksen.
Witnesses: Marcilynn Burke, Bureau of Land Management deputy director; Harris Sherman, Agriculture undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment; Mike McGinley, county commissioner, Beaverhead County, Mont.; Sherman Anderson, president and owner of Sun Mountain Lumber Inc.; Ronald Hurt, county commissioner, Fremont County, Idaho; Tim Baker, executive director, Montana Wilderness Association; Matthew Koehler, executive director, Wild West Institute; and Chris Wood, chief operating officer, Trout Unlimited.
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.