By Phil Taylor
A Senate committee's draft legislation to cut logging mandates from a sweeping Wilderness proposal in Montana has drawn sharp criticism from a coalition of timber interests and could lose the support of the bill's chief sponsor.
At its unveiling last summer, Sen. Jon Tester's (D-Mont.) "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act" was viewed by many as offering the best chance for Montana to break its quarter-century drought of new Wilderness designations while offering binding logging and forest restoration projects to revive the state's ailing timber industry.
Drawing on the support of environmentalists, timber companies and off-highway vehicle (OHV) users, the bill promised to designate nearly 680,000 acres of new Wilderness, require timber removal on 100,000 acres over the next decade and allow an additional 336,000 acres of special management areas to be used for logging or motorized recreation.
But that coalition appeared at risk of fracturing late last week after a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee draft of the bill began circulating among bill opponents.
The new draft legislation-while merely a "work in progress" according to committee staff-did not include the requirement to log at least 10,000 acres a year in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai national forests and removed stipulations that the Forest Service complete National Environmental Policy Act reviews of timber harvest projects within a year.
The draft also struck language from the original proposal that allowed military helicopter training and the use of OHVs for livestock herding in Wilderness areas.
A spokesman for Tester, when asked about the slimmed-down draft of his bill, said the senator would withdraw his support if Congress failed to restore the timber mandates.
"Sen. Tester will not support a package that doesn't include all of those pieces," spokesman Aaron Murphy said in an e-mail. "They are the product of many Montanans who put their differences aside and worked together, for years, to find common ground."
Lumber companies and environmental groups that helped craft the original bill said they, too, would rescind their support if the committee draft is advanced as written.
"The working forest provisions are equally important as the Wilderness proposals," said Tom France, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation's Northern Rockies regional center.
The committee draft "focused too much on the policy side and not enough on the people here," France added. "There are timber workers who never thought they'd be supporting Wilderness."
The draft revisions to the bill have reignited a vigorous debate in Montana over the fate of its public lands, which contain some of the largest remaining roadless areas in the continental United States.
Questions also have been raised by environmental groups and county commissioners about the openness of the legislative process and whether such substantial changes should be made behind closed doors.
Matthew Koehler, executive director of the WildWest Institute in Missoula, who testified in opposition to the bill at a December hearing, issued a public statement after obtaining a copy of the draft calling on Tester to make the document available to the 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," he said.
Republicans in Montana, meanwhile, blasted the senator for breaching his own campaign pledge to provide open access to public documents.
"On the issue of his forest bill, I accuse Senator Tester of violating his campaign promises," said state Republican Party Chairman Will Deschamps. "He has not been open. He has not been transparent. He has not been honest."
But other observers, while equally supportive of making the draft public, said such a disclosure might no longer be in Tester's control.
"I'm convinced that Jon himself is very transparent and always insists that his operations be transparent," said former Montana Rep. Pat Williams (D), who authored 19 Wilderness bills during his nine terms in office.
"The best policy and political position is for Jon to, if he can, release the draft and tell Montanans what he thinks is wrong with it," he said. But "it might be a draft that his staff is unprepared to talk about."
Murphy, Tester's spokesman, said that while the discussion draft includes elements proposed by Tester, the document itself is the "sole product" of the committee and that the senator's office was no longer the appropriate source for public information about the bill.
The committee typically evaluates multiple drafts of bills before moving them forward for markups, said Energy and Natural Resources spokesman Bill Wicker.
The Tester draft-as is the case with all draft bills-was never intended to be circulated publicly and may not be the only version of the legislation under consideration, he said.
"Discussion drafts are shared with people who are in the negotiations," Wicker said, adding that copies had been given to Tester's staff, committee Republicans and the Forest Service for technical analysis. "They don't negotiate these things in the press."
Strategizing for omnibus?
The latest changes, although done in secrecy, are a major improvement to a bill that was fundamentally flawed from the beginning, said the WildWest Institute's Koehler, who was an early opponent of the bill.
They were also inevitable considering the Forest Service in December called the bill's NEPA provisions "flawed and legally vulnerable," Koehler added.
The environmental coalition "Last Best Place" wildlands campaign, led by Koehler, criticized provisions in the earlier bill that would have released Wilderness study areas for potential development and designated more than 1 million acres of federally inventoried roadless areas as "timber suitable or open to harvest" (E&E Daily <http://www.eenews.net/EEDaily/2009/12/14/archive/2/> , Dec. 14, 2009).
"I don't think anyone can argue from a conservation point of view that committee's revisions aren't a step in the right direction," he said, adding that he still had reservations with the boundaries of the proposed Wilderness areas and the release of some study areas from Wilderness consideration.
"I assure you the committee revision was vetted by the Obama administration and Forest Service," he added. "It was essentially saying, 'If you want this bill put on an omnibus public lands bill, here is the bill and this is what it's going to look like.'"
Wicker rejected suggestions that the committee was pandering to the White House in order to advance the bill in a larger piece of legislation and insisted that changes would need to be made in order to bring Tester back on board with the proposal.
"Our end game is to get this bill to where everyone can sign off on it," he said. "[Tester] is ultimately going to have to agree. If he doesn't, we are unsuccessful in our effort."
The timeline for completing work on the bill is limited, Wicker warned.
With only about 30 legislative days remaining on Congress's calendar, the committee will need to have the bill on the Senate floor by the end of the summer, he said. Even if that happens, the chamber will be hampered by a busy agenda of spending bills, a Supreme Court nomination, and energy and climate proposals, he said.
"The reality of the Senate calendar is going to be a challenge, not just for this legislation, but for a lot of bills," he said.
Craig Wilson, a political scientist at Montana State University in Billings, said the bill would face additional pressures if it is not passed soon.
"If Tester's bill or any other Wilderness bill for Montana is going to pass, it will have to happen either this year or next year," said Wilson, whose son is the political director for Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg (R).
Wilderness bills "could become a time bomb in 2012" amid a presidential election and Montana races for governor and the U.S. Senate and House, he said.
As the congressional clock ticks down, there is growing belief among Wilderness supporters that members in Congress will look to package a suite of Wilderness bills into an omnibus package similar to the 2009 legislation that established 2.1 million acres of new wilderness areas in nine states.
In addition to Tester's bill, other measures include an 850,000-acre Wilderness proposal in Colorado sought by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), but that bill has met opposition from the Obama administration.
Smaller Wilderness proposals include a measure by Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.) to protect 63,475 acres in southwestern Colorado and Sen. Ron Wyden's (D-Ore.) 16,000-acre Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven Wilderness proposal for central Oregon.
The "Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act," while lacking a sponsor in Congress, would designate nearly 86,000 acres of Wilderness and ban most road building on an additional 218,000 acres of federal land (Land Letter <http://www.eenews.net/Landletter/2010/06/03/archive/9/> , June 3).
"There's simply not enough time to pass each one of the bills individually," Paul Spitler, associate director of the Wilderness Society's national Wilderness campaigns program, said in March. "The only viable mechanism to get these bills approved is to have them considered all at once."