by Daniel Person, Chronicle Staff Writer
In Madison County, there’s a place called Cowboy’s Heaven.
Wolverines live there, as do moose, black bears and mountain lions. No roads cut across its open grasslands or through its forests, and it’s sandwiched between two wilderness areas, Beartrap Canyon and the Spanish Peaks.
Under a plan released by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., last week, it would become part of the 19,000-some acres added to the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, which hop-scotches down the Madison Mountain Range from Norris to the border of Yellowstone National Park.
The Lee Metcalf Wilderness was established in 1983. Its namesake, Sen. Lee Metcalf, served as Montana’s junior senator from 1961 until he died in office in 1978. During his years in the Senate, Metcalf helped create the Great Bear Wilderness south of Glacier National Park and the Absarokee-Beartooth Wilderness south of Livingston, prompting lawmakers to memorialize the Stevensville native with a wilderness of his own.
Since then, no new wilderness has been designated in Montana. Advocates of Tester’s bill say it is poised to change that.
As written, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act would designate almost 700,000 acres of national forest in Montana as wilderness, a lot of it in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest west of Bozeman.
But it would also mandate the logging of 7,000 acres every year in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and open up swaths of land in western Montana to motorized and mechanized travel.
It’s an ala carte plan that many say makes allies of old foes who have made the past 30 years of forest policy bitterly contentious between the loggers, conservationists, hikers and dirt bikers. But it has critics, too, who say it either gives too much to loggers or locks too much forest up under wilderness designations.
“Montanans from different walks of life worked together to bring these ideas to me,” Tester said last week. “I took their input. And then we went out and got more input. And I used all that information to put together this bill.”
Wood and woodpeckers
In 2005, RY Timber wanted to log 2,600 acres of land in the Basin Creek area south of Butte. The forest there had been hammered by pine bark beetles, and Butte-Silver Bow County officials were afraid a massive forest fire could harm Butte’s watershed.
“We had a green light, went in and logged, then a judge put an injunction against us,” recalled Ed Regan, resource manager at RY Timber.
A trio of conservation groups had sued, arguing the project would jeopardize black-eyed woodpecker habitat.
It was a court case that would continue into 2007 and go to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals with the value of the beetle-killed trees dropping 20 to 25 percent a year, according to RY Timber’s calculation.
The company and the U.S. Forest Service eventually won the lawsuit, but today Regan doesn’t speak fondly of the ordeal. He considers it hard-earned, first-hand knowledge of the challenge loggers have getting into the national forests to harvest timber.
Tester used RY Timber’s sawmill in Townsend to announce his plan, and Regan is a vocal backer of the bill. It seeks to give Montana timber companies better assurance that Montana forests will be open for logging by mandating that 7,000 acres of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge be logged annually for the next 10 years.
Regan said companies in Montana started looking out of state for timber because of all the delays timber sales here tend to come under.
“What we see in the Tester bill is more timber closer to home, which should allow us to keep freight cost down. In a poor market, you need to be able to cut costs,” Regan said.
The timber industry in Montana is struggling, and not just because of woodpeckers. With the housing market down, the demand for wood is, too, and mills across the state have been scaling back or shutting down all together. Last January, employees at RY Timber, including about 100 in Livingston, had their work week cut back to three days.
But forests must be opened to logging if the industry hopes to rebound with the rest of the economy, Tester said.
“I can’t tell you what piece or what domino has to fall to get the economy to turn around,” Tester told reporters in Townsend last week. “But when it does, we certainly don’t want to be in a position where we can’t take advantage of it.”
And while groups will always be allowed to appeal timber sales, Regan said the collaborative nature of the bill makes it less likely that plaintiffs will win.
The Beaverhead-Deerlodge portion of the bill is based on a plan created by the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership, a coalition of logging companies – including RY Timber and conservation groups like Montana Trout Unlimited and the Montana Wilderness Association.
“Groups, if they want to, still have the right to sue,” Regan said. “But we feel we have such a diverse group of people supporting this that those in the business of suing eventually will give up be marginalized to such an extent the courts won’t listen to them.”
Above the law, into the red
Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, one of the groups that sued over the Basin Creek project, agreed that stopping timber sales would become more difficult under Tester’s plan. But that’s not a good thing, he said.
“Basin Creek got delayed because they didn’t follow the law,” he said.
While the project was eventually allowed to go forward, Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula ordered the Forest Service to run more studies on soil productivity before logging could continue, finding the agency had run afoul of federal environmental laws when it approved the project.
“Ed Regan is saying it’s not necessary for the Forest Service to follow the law. Richard Nixon proved no one is above the law, and I don’t think the Forest Service is above the law,” he said.
But Tester’s bill would make it harder to mount such legal challenges, by allowing the government to approve projects based on “landscape-level” environmental analyses, rather than the kind of site-specific analysis Molloy ordered for the Basin Creek, Garrity said.
“You’re going to ignore the site specific-issues, like soils,” he said. “Tester’s bill says they aren’t going to do that anymore.”
Garrity and others also say mandating 7,000 acres for logging are well above the number of acres now logged on the forest – would cost taxpayers big bucks.
Paul Richards, who dropped out of the 2006 Democratic Senate primary to support Tester, has said the government loses $1,400 for every acre logged in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge because the amount of money the Forest Service spends to analyze timber sales, operate auctions and defend sales in court exceeds the amount timber companies pay for the wood. At 7,000 acres a year, a $100 million hole would be dug, Richards argues in an op-ed published on NewWest.Net.
Even without costly litigation, Garrity said, timber sales in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge would be far from economically sustainable.
But in announcing the plan, Tester made clear his focus was restoring the economies of small towns that rely on lumber mills.
“The forest jobs bill will create good new jobs … upon its passage. It will restore our forests and get people working again in the woods,” he said.
Along with Trout Unlimited and the Montana Wilderness Association, the Bozeman-based Greater Yellowstone Coalition is voicing its support for the bill.
Barb Cestero, Montana state director for the group, said GYC is “not completely comfortable” with the logging provisions of the bill as written, but sees it as a good starting point for working toward more wilderness.
It puts the Jefferson Mountain area, south of Bozeman on the border of Idaho, under wilderness protection at a time when that area is become more and more popular for motorized uses, she said.
And, countering arguments that the bill just puts “rocks and ice” under wilderness protection while opening the forests up to loggers, she said many areas include diverse ecosystems. That includes the proposed Snowcrest Wilderness in Madison County, the biggest chunk of wilderness proposed in the plan.
Along with mandating logging, the bill also mandates restoration in the forests: 50,000 acres over the next 10 years in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge that is slated for projects like road removal and improved culverts.
“That is a win. That is a good thing,” she said.
And, she said, the logging industry does need help.
“We appreciate the timber industry’s need for greater certainty and support the goal of retaining Montana’s small mill infrastructure,” she said.
“It’s a bill that rewards people for working together,” she said. “It really is about Montana’s future. It’s going to provide jobs as well as protect Montana’s heritage.”
A brand new way
Wilderness is controversial. It strictly limits what areas can be used for, often bringing opposition from groups that support logging and motorized uses.
But Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy said the bill has enough stakeholders including some, but not all, motorized-use groups to get it through Congress.
“Jon’s legislation is a brand new way of moving forward,” he said. “Twenty-five years ago, timber folks and conservationists were at loggerhead. After working together, they to Jon a plan for Montana’s forest and they’re proposing the same thing.”