by John S. Adams, Triune Capitol Bureau
HELENA — A new Senate committee rewrite of Sen. Jon Tester’s forest bill is circulating among members of the group that helped draft the original measure, but some of the original bills supporters say the proposed changes are unacceptable.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has developed a “discussion draft” version of Tester’s “Forest Jobs and Recreation Act,” which removes one of the most controversial provisions of the bill. That provision call for the mandated logging of 100,000 acres of timber on the Beaverhead- Deerlodge and Kootenai National Forests.
Some of the supporters who helped draft the Montana Democrat’s original forest bill, which would add 660,000 acres of new wilderness in Montana while mandating the logging of 100,000 acres of public forests over a 10-year period, said they received a copy of the committee draft from Tester’s staff last week.
Matthew Koehler of the Last Best Place Wildlands Campaign called Thursday for Tester to release the committee’s proposal to the general public.
“Since the committee’s draft includes significant new language, we believe it’s in the best interest of all Montanans and Americans for Senator Tester to make a copy of the committee’s draft available for public review and input,” Koehler said. “This step will ensure transparency and give all members of the public an equal opportunity to review the new draft language.”
Key proponents of the controversial bill, including Tester, said they would not support the energy committee’s proposed revisions to the measure.
“The discussion draft did not have the mandatory 10,000-acres-per-year of treatment. That is a vital part of the Tester bill, in our opinion, being one of the timber partners that’s been involved,” said Edward Regan, resource manager at RY Timber in Townsend.
Sun Mountain Lumber plant manager Tony Colter, another member of the collaborative group that helped draft Tester’s original bill, also said the committee’s proposal is unacceptable without the mandated logging provision.
Colter said he has been in discussion with Tester’s staff over the proposed revisions and he expects further discussions to take place in the coming weeks.
“This is all part of the process,” Colter said. “This is not the bill we’ve submitted, and we would not support it as it came out of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.” In a statement to the Tribune, Tester did not indicate whether he planned to release the discussion draft to the public. However, he said he would drop his support for the measure if the logging quota was omitted.
“This bill started with Montanans working together to craft a made-in-Montana solution to improve our forest management that was built on a commitment to create jobs through logging, recreation and wilderness,” Tester stated in an e-mail. “There are a number of changes folks would like to see made to (the bill) — some will be implemented, all will be considered. Make no mistake, if the timber mandates are not part of the deal, I’ll pull the plug on the whole thing.”
The Tribune obtained a copy of the discussion draft Thursday.
In addition to dropping the mandated logging language, the 32-page committee proposal also removes the 12-month timeline for environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Conservationists vocally have opposed mandated logging and NEPA timelines on the grounds that they are unsustainable, costly and could set a bad precedent for management of other national forests.
The committee’s draft also adds language requiring that any project carried out under the bill must maintain old-growth forests and retain large trees, and focus any hazardous fuel reduction efforts on small-diameter trees.
“In my view, these revisions are all steps in the right direction and certainly worthy of consideration,” Koehler said.
“The committee’s draft still does contain provisions that compromise the integrity of the proposed wildernesses,” he added. “However, the draft also drops several of the controversial wilderness provisions, including those allowing helicopter landings for military training exercises and herding livestock with (motorized vehicles) in wilderness.”
Though some of the proposed changes appear to be an attempt to ease the concerns of conservationists who oppose Tester’s bill, one Montana conservationist said the committee’s proposal doesn’t go far enough to protect wilderness and roadless areas.
After being provided a copy of the committee draft, Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, called it a “bad bill that can’t be fixed.”
“It doesn’t declare enough wilderness and it still has too much bad language in it,” Garrity said. “It still contains a bunch of language that would weaken the Wilderness Act.”
Garrity has long supported the “Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act,” a much broader wilderness bill that would declare all federally designated roadless areas as wilderness. That measure has 103 cosponsors in Congress, but so far backers haven’t been unable to generate enough support to move it forward.