Tester slips forest initiative into massive Senate spending bill

It’s official.

Sen. Jon Tester got his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, now entitled “Montana Forest Jobs and Restoration Initiative” (see page 893), inserted into the $1.1 trillion Senate omnibus spending bill.

The bill is almost certain to pass.

I reported on Tester’s efforts to make this happen last Friday. (I was surprised that I appeared to be the only journalist in the state who thought it was newsworthy. As far as I know no other news outlet reported that Tester was working to get this landmark piece of legislation passed as part of a massive “must-pass” spending bill).

As I reported, opponents of the measure called Tester’s attempt to get the bill inserted into the massive spending package “underhanded.”

Supporters of the bill have a different view.

Tom France, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation, maintains that “most of the timber industry and most of the conservation community” support Tester’s approach to getting the bill passed by any means necessary:

“What some call underhanded tactics, others would call good and effective legislating by an elected politician doing his job,” France wrote in an e-mail to me Monday.

Critics on both the right and the left are miffed that a bill that dictates how many of our public lands will be managed into the future is set to pass despite not ever receiving a committee vote.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last summer, after hearing testimony on the bill the previous December, developed a “discussion draft” version of Tester’s bill that removed one of the most controversial provisions of the bill: the mandated logging of 100,000 acres of timber on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai National Forests. But  Tester, as well as officials for the timber companies and conservation groups who crafted the FJRA, said they would not support a bill that did not have the mandates.

So the bill sat in committee for months where it appeared to be dead. It never got a hearing in the House. It never got another hearing in the Senate. It never got a markup.

Yet now it has been revived and appears poised to pass.

Our Washington, D.C. correspondent Ledge King is tracking this development. Read tomorrow’s Great Falls Tribune for more details on FJRA and other details about the 1924-page Senate omnibus bill. As you may have noticed, we’ve begun truncating some of our stories. For the most complete coverage, please subscribe to the Tribune or the Tribune e-edition.

UPDATE: As I was writing this post Tester’s office sent this memo to reporters. Here’s Tester’s take on the “Forest Jobs and Restoration Initiative.” I’m sure there are lots of different views on this bill and Tester’s approach to getting it passed. Please feel free to discuss in the comments.

MEMO

TO: Interested News Reporters

FROM: Aaron Murphy, the Office of Senator Jon Tester

RE: Forest Jobs and Recreation Act

December 14, 2010

The Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2010 includes Sen. Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.  The Senate is expected to vote on the bill in the coming days. Until the law passes, nothing is final.

The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act is “Title VII – Montana Forests” in the Omnibus Appropriations bill. (page 893, online HERE). The most recent language (as it appears in the Omnibus Appropriations bill) is—and has been—online at tester.senate.gov/forest.  The maps are also online—and have been since they were finalized.

An October 2010 letter from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack expressing support for Sen. Tester’s bill is online HERE.

The final version of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act is similar to the version introduced by Sen. Tester in July of 2009.  Here is a summary:

What the final version of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act does:

· CREATES JOBS by mandating 70,000 acres of mechanical treatment on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and 30,000 acres of mechanical treatment on the Three Rivers District of the Kootenai National Forest over 15 years. (The original version of The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act called for this 100,000 acres of treatment over 10 years.)

· Mandates the U.S. Forest Service to implement large watershed and forest restoration projects each year over 15 years, prioritizing projects in the wildland-urban interface (forested areas near communities) and watersheds with high road density on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and the Three Rivers District of the Kootenai National Forest.

· Designates 369,501 acres of recreation areas.

· Designates 666,260 acres of wilderness.  This is 2,800 acres less than the original version of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.

How the final version of FJRA differs from the version originally introduced by Sen. Tester in July of 2009.

Based on input from thousands of Montanans, the Forest Service, and the Energy and Natural Resource committee, Senator Tester made the following changes:

Forest and Restoration Changes

  • Change:  Extended the timeframe of the forestry and restoration components from 10 years to 15 years.

Reason: The Forest Service requested this change.

  • Change:  Allow the forest and restoration work to be conducted on Forest Service lands adjacent to the Three Rivers District, as well as within the district.

Reason:  The Forest Service and constituents in Lincoln County requested this change, to give the Forest Service more room to work around grizzly bear habitat.

  • Change:  The final bill expands the authority of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HRFA), to all work performed under this bill. Key provisions are: 

o Streamlines documents needed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to a no action alternative, a preferred alternative, and a second alternative, if it is brought forward by a collaborative group. This saves money and time, reducing administrative costs.

o HFRA uses the objections process instead of the appeals process. This means citizens who with concerns about the projects cast their objections before the Forest Service releases its decision, so those objections can be addressed in the final decision document, likely reducing litigation.

o HFRA directs the courts to consider a balance of harms—that is, to determine whether not doing work is potentially more harmful than doing the work–when assessing whether to let projects move forward.

o Temporary stays or injunctions that may be issued by a court are only 60 days.

Reason:  The Forest Service worked with Senator Tester to find the most appropriate environmental review process for these large watershed restoration projects. Many Montanans asked Sen. Tester to include balance of harms and tightened timelines for court injunctions.

  • Change:  If citizens formally object to the project, a mediator may be used to help resolve the issues.

Reason:  The Three Rivers Challenge in Lincoln County requested this, to avoid using the court system to resolve issues.

Changes to Wilderness and Recreation

  • Change:  Sen. Tester dropped McAttee Basin from the wilderness additions this bill makes to the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. McAttee is in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest, not far from Big Sky.

Reason:  Many snowmobilers in and around Gallatin County asked for this change.

  • Change:  Sen. Tester dropped the Lost Cabin wilderness, and instead designated the Tobacco Roots Recreation Management Area.

Reason:  The Montana Mountain Bike Alliance requested this change; this area is very popular for mountain bikers.

  • Change:  The Highlands Wilderness decreased from approximately 20,000 acres to 15,000 acres. Sen. Tester designated the remaining 5,000 acres as a Special Management Area that has many of the protections of wilderness but allows for occasional helicopter landings to help train our nation’s military personnel in wilderness survival. It also enables the City of Butte to maintain the water pipeline that crosses the area.

Reason:  This change was requested by wilderness advocates.

  • Change:  Sen. Tester adjusted boundaries in the West Big Hole to not inadvertently cut off loop roads there.

Reason:  Big Hole valley residents requested this change.

  • Change:  Sen. Tester removed two cherry stems – which is an exclusion of a trail from wilderness, to allow uses otherwise not permitted in wilderness areas – in the Lee Metcalf at Cowboys Heaven and in the East Pioneers.

Reason:  Dozens of Montanans requested these changes.

  • Change:  Sen. Tester added 6,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management wilderness – the East Fork of Blacktail, which is adjacent to the Snowcrest wilderness in the bill.

Reason:  The BLM requested this because it is adjacent to the Snowcrest Wilderness and a state wildlife management area.

  • Change:  Language has been added to allow access to water infrastructure for irrigators in all of the wilderness areas designated by this bill.

Reason: This was added at the request of Montana irrigators.

The final version of FJRA also maintains these original provisions

Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest:

· Permanently creates areas that the Forest Service must manage for recreation, including motorized recreation.

· Solves the long-standing Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Study Area debate by designating some BLM Wilderness Study Areas and releasing others from wilderness consideration, and management as if they were wilderness.

· Allows ranchers’ access to water infrastructure (such as stock tanks and pipelines) in the Snowcrest Wilderness Area.

· Allows continued sheep trailing across the Snowcrest Wilderness Area.

Three Rivers District of the Kootenai National Forest:

· Permanently creates Three Rivers Special Management Area, which encompasses separate motorized and non-motorized recreation areas.

· Directs the Forest Service to conduct a study of potential ATV routes.

· Designates 30,000 acres of wilderness at Roderick Mountain.

Seeley Lake District of the Lolo National Forest:

· Creates an area for snowmobiling use until the next revision of the Lolo Forest Plan.

· Designates approximately 87,000 acres of wilderness in addition to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Mission Mountain Wilderness.

All three areas

· Authorizes use of federal funds for biomass facilities that process biomass material harvested in Montana.

———————————————————————————