by Rob Chaney of the Missoulian
A proposal to drop the logging mandate in Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act has local Congress-watchers buzzing, but it may be already out of date.
A “discussion draft” of Tester’s S. 1470 legislation started circulating last week among critics of the bill. This version did not have the requirement to log at least 10,000 acres a year in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai national forests, or the one-year limitation on U.S. Forest Service environmental reviews. It also deleted language from the wilderness sections that would have allowed military helicopter training and off-road vehicle use for livestock herding.
For his part, Tester said this week that he would not accept removing the logging mandate. “There are a number of changes folks would like to see made to S. 1470,” Tester said. “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.”
Tester’s office declined a request by the Missoulian to release the discussion draft, saying the Senate Energy Committee was in charge of those versions. On Friday, Energy Committee communications director Bill Wicker said those drafts are not generally released to the public.
“The legislative process will involve often dozens of discussion drafts that go back and forth,” Wicker said. “The copy I have might not be the most recent. It could change this afternoon and again tomorrow morning and again on Monday. It’s a living document until all the revisions are made.”
The Missoulian received copies of a discussion draft on Friday that had no notations about which senator or staff member made the suggested changes. A time stamp on the electronic version of the document said it was created on May 24. Tester’s staff said it was the first version from the committee they’d seen.
Matthew Koehler of Last Best Place Wildlands Campaign sent e-mails on Thursday asking Tester to release copies of the discussion draft. He was joined by Michael Garrity of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, who accused Tester of continuing to work on the bill with a closed group of supporters.
“All these people were being naive, and I told them that from day one,” Garrity said, “if they thought they could come up with a final version from their small group and that version would become law. It changes when it goes through Congress. And now it seems it’s starting to fall apart.”
Wicker said such assumptions were unfounded.
“I’m just a little frustrated by the fella up in Montana,” he said of Koehler’s e-mails. “I don’t think any of us around here thought he would make a big media circus about it. I have no idea what version is shuttling back and forth. There could be a couple dozen iterations.”
Tester himself proposed numerous changes to his bill in February, including fast-tracking restoration work, modifying wilderness boundaries and clarifying recreation options. But because he’s no longer a member of the Energy Committee, he must defer to the committee staff to tinker with his own legislation at this point.
Wicker said those suggestions and any others offered by other senators go to the Energy Committee staff, a bipartisan working group that collectively hammers out language changes to pending legislation. Drafts may also be shown to affected agencies like the Forest Service, and the affected senators, he said. Once the committee clears a bill, it goes before the full committee for mark-up, the last public review before a bill is sent to the full Senate.
At that point, senators unhappy with the staff version of the bill may offer amendments, which the committee members vote on. Tester’s bill currently has no date scheduled for a committee mark-up. Wicker said there are less than 40 legislative working days left for this session of Congress.
“If the staff has been unable to work out the amendments, the prospects for those amendments are not so good,” Wicker said. “It’s important to let the process work as it has for decades. That’s why my colleagues get frustrated with any efforts to negotiate and work these things out through the newspaper.”
Tester originally offered S. 1470 last July. One of its more noticeable features was a requirement that the Forest Service designate at least 10,000 acres annually for timber harvest. It also ordered the Forest Service to take no longer than 12 months to conduct National Environmental Policy Act reviews on those projects. And it required the work be done through “stewardship contracts” that added wildlife habitat restoration, recreation improvements and road removal to the mix.
That’s considerably more acres and a faster review schedule than the Forest Service has been doing in Montana. Bill supporters hailed it as a way to energize the state’s timber industry and improve forest health. Critics charged it would result in unsustainable tree-cutting with weakened environmental safety standards.
“I like the dropping of the mandated logging and the time limit on NEPA, but I don’t think they went far enough,” said Garrity. He wants Tester to defer to another proposed bill called the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, which would impose wilderness designation on 24 million acres across the Rocky Mountains.
Tim Baker of the Montana Wilderness Association said he got a copy of the discussion draft from Tester’s staff earlier this week for review. MWA was part of the original coalition of conservation, recreation and logging groups that Tester relied on to craft S.1470.
“We think it’s a good start, but it’s inadequate in a number of key respects,” Baker said of the discussion draft. “For sure it does not address adequately the timber side of the equation. This vision we’ve crafted and taken to D.C. is what we continue to pursue. We will not support legislation that does not contain adequate assurances for our timber partners.”