Tester to unveil major forest bill tomorrow, critics already riled up

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester will finally release the text of a much anticipated forest bill at RY Timber in Townsend at 1 p.m. Friday.

The bill—dubbed the “Montana Conservation, Restoration, and Stewardship Pilot Project Act of 2009” in earlier drafts—is expected to include proposals for hundreds of thousands of acres of new Wilderness areas in the state. That has Wilderness enthusiasts excited since they haven’t seen a new Wilderness in more than 25 years.

But some conservation groups and Wilderness advocates are already crying foul after they were locked-out of the negotiations leading up to the bill.

Michael Garrity, director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, told the Associated Press that he believes Tester isn’t making good on a promise to run a transparent office.

“I’m frustrated that I haven’t been more involved,” he said. “I think that they need to talk to all sides rather than a select few.”

Tester’s office has refused to give any information about the bill up to this point.

Matthew Koehler of the WildWest Institute was quoted as saying:

“The senator’s office flat out refuses to give out any more information unless you are a selected mill owner or selected environmental group… They are solving it by excluding anyone who disagrees with them.”

Last week “Wild” Bill Schneider of NewWest.net chastised Tester for all of the secrecy surrounding the impending legislation:

“Wilderness and forest management are huge issues for most Montanans, and I’m delighted to see Senator Tester finally start to think about fulfilling his campaign promise to protect Montana’s roadless lands, but this secretive, exclusive process of developing this major legislation is embarrassing.

As I write this, a privileged few from major green groups and the wood products industry are basically drafting this legislation, and our junior Senator considers the rest of us have-nots, telling constituents–and the media–to wait for the press conference. Instead of carefully keeping his thumb on it, Tester should be facilitating a public process on what direction the legislation should take.”

Tester’s spokesman, Aaron Murphy, told the Associated Press:

“When there’s a bill, it will be available for everyone to see at the same time. It will be the beginning of the process, not the end,” Murphy said. “Jon has been hearing from and working with Montanans of all stripes for years about these issues.”

An early draft of the bill releases four Congressionally mandated Wilderness Study Areas. These are areas that are under consideration for possible Wilderness designation and receive the same protections as Wilderness. Under the draft version of the bill, the Lost Creek Scenic Area, the Big Hole National Recreation Area, the West Pioneers Recreation Management Area and the Yaak Special Management Area will be released from that special designation and opened to timber harvesting, off-road vehicle use and grazing.

That’s got one prominent Tester support red hot.

Paul Richards, who ducked out of the 2006 U.S. Senate primary race just days before the election and urged his supporters to back Tester, says Tester broke the agreement they made in May 2006. According to Richards’ campaign Web site, Tester agreed to a handful of terms—Richards calls them promises—in order to secure Richards’ endorsement in the neck-and-neck race between Tester and then-State Auditor John Morrison. At the time the agreement was hatched, a Lee Newspapers poll had Tester trailing Morrison 42 percent to 41 percent, with Richards garnering 2 percent.

Richards says that if the bill that comes out tomorrow releases those study areas, then Tester will have broken a key promise to “work to protect all of Montanan’s remaining roadless wildlands.”

“Not only does the Tester Logging Bill fail to honor that commitment, it does the exact opposite. The Tester Logging Bill is a well-orchestrated and well-funded assault upon Montana’s roadless public wildlands. “

You can download the full text of Richards’ statement here.

Tester’s spokesman, Murphy, responded to Richards’ accusation by simply saying:

“This is a bill for all Montanans. Jon wasn’t hired to write legislation for just one person.”