Tester unveils new draft of forest jobs bill

Today Sen. Jon Tester unveiled the latest draft version of his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.

You can download a copy of Tester’s latest draft here.

In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Tester said his new discussion draft is the next step in a “long and complicated process.”

(Click the play button on the player below to hear the entire conference call. Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy introduces the conference call.)

http://www.archive.org/download/JonTestersJune17ConferenceCallWithReporters/WS_30117.WMA

The bill comes in response to a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee discussion draft that surfaced earlier this month. You can read the text of the committee’s draft here and here.

As originally proposed, Tester’s forest measure would add 660,000 acres of new wilderness in Montana while mandating logging on 100,000 acres on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai National Forests.

The ENRC draft, which was circulated among members of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership collaborate group approximately three weeks ago, removed those mandates.

The committee draft also stripped controversial language from the original bill that allowed military helicopter landings and the use of motorized vehicles for livestock and wildlife management within wilderness boundaries.

Tester said his latest draft would result in the “same outcome” laid out in his original proposal while including some of the ideas contained in the committee’s draft.

“It, too, is a discussion draft,” Tester acknowledged Thursday in a telephone call with reporters. “It very likely will not be the final version that the committee votes on.”

Tester said his staff is in daily negotiations with the committee staff in an attempt to hammer out a bill that can reach a vote before Congress wraps up work later this year.

However, Tester warned that if the final committee bill does not contain mandated logging levels aimed at sustaining the state’s dwindling wood products industry then it will be “dead on arrival.”

“I have said from the beginning that I will only support a bill that contains the four carefully balanced provisions that have resulted from years of folks working together, those being timber, wilderness, recreation and restoration,” Tester said. “The committee’s bill stripped out the timber and restoration certainties in my bill. All four components are critically important to this bill.”

Tester acknowledged that the Forest Service was critical of the mandated logging quotas contained in the original proposal.

Harris Sherman, Under Secretary of Natural Resources and the Environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, testified at a committee hearing in December that the mandated logging levels outlined in Tester’s bill “are likely unachievable and perhaps unsustainable.”

Tester said Thursday that the agency now supports the bill.

“We were able to work with the Forest Service and get them on board,” Tester said. “They support this bill.” (Tester quote begins at 11:37 in the recording above).

However, Joe Walsh, a spokesman in the Forest Service’s Washington, D.C. office declined to comment on the agency’s position on Tester’s latest proposal.

“We have not received a copy of the senator’s latest draft, but we will review it when we get a copy,” Walsh said. “Right now this is a work in progress between the senator and the committee.”

In a follow-up e-mail, Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy said the agency is “fine with” the “sustainability of the mechanical treatment levels prescribed by the bill.”

“It’s our understanding that the Forest Service believes the work Jon is trying to achieve is ecologically sustainable (through mechanical treatment),” Murphy wrote.

Tester said members of the collaborative group that helped draft the original bill—which includes a handful of wilderness, conservation and timber groups—support his proposed changes to the measure.

“They’re enthusiastic,” Tester said. “They have the same information that you have in front of you and they’re fired up about it. They like it.”

But some environmental and conservation groups, many of whom have been critical of Tester’s bill from the start, remained miffed by his latest proposal.

“If the goal is protecting some wilderness in Montana and getting some restoration and fuel reduction work accomplished, then the Energy and Natural Resource Committee’s draft, while not perfect, is a step in the right direction and superior to both Senator Tester’s original bill and his new proposal,” said Matthew Koehler of the Last Best Place Wildlands Campaign.

Koehler also testified at the energy and committee’s December 17 hearing.

“As we move forward, let’s hope Senator Tester and the collaborators give the committee’s draft significantly more consideration than just proclaiming it dead on arrival,” Koehler added.

George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, said Tester’s latest proposal attempts to re-write longstanding forest management policy, including the Wilderness Act, by allowing previously banned activities in federally designated wilderness areas.

“I would hope that the senator would honor the Wilderness Act and not even try to put that language back in that bill,” Nickas said.

Like Koehler, Nickas said if the bill is to have a chance of passing, then the committee draft would be better starting point for negotiations.

“I think it’s too bad if Sen. Tester is drawing a line in the sand by saying, ‘mandated logging or nothing.’ I think by doing that he’s saying ‘nothing.’” Nickas said. “Mandated logging is not where a lot of folks in the conservation community, nor do I think a lot of members of Congress, are willing to go.”

For his part, Tester said he’s committed to sticking to the goals of the partnership that helped create the forest jobs bill.

“I can tell you I’ve got plenty of fight left in me and so do thousands of Montanans who support this bill, but more importantly support the ideas and principles that this bill contains,” Tester said.