A revised version of Sen. Jon Tester's Montana logging and wilderness initiative has been included in a last-minute omnibus appropriations bill before the U.S. Senate.
Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy said on Tuesday the renamed "Forest Jobs and Restoration Pilot Initiative" is essentially the original version of a bill Tester submitted last year as the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. The major difference is that a logging mandate that called for 100,000 acres of "mechanical treatment" over 10 years has been extended to 15 years.
The bill also contains about 660,000 acres of new wilderness designation for Montana, plus another 300,000 acres of recreation or special management areas. Several wildland boundaries have been adjusted up or down, with a net reduction of 2,800 acres.
"Jon's pleased that his Senate colleagues agree it's time to put the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act up for a vote," Murphy said. "This is just another step in what has been a year-and-a-half-long process to create jobs in Montana. Nothing is final until this bill is passed by the full Congress and is signed into law."
The omnibus bill runs 1,924 pages. It would replace a simpler continuing resolution to fund the government for one year with a more complex roundup of bills that did not reach individual debate in this session of Congress. That includes measures for the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Food and Drug Administration, Defense, Energy, Treasury, Homeland Security, Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, Education, Health and Human Services, Labor, Veterans Affairs, State, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.
The $1.1 trillion bill must clear a variety of hurdles to get out of the Senate. At least one senator has threatened to have the whole thing read aloud on the Senate floor, which would take at least a day. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has threatened to keep the session running past Christmas if too many procedural delays are launched. The biggest showdown could come Saturday, when a tentative vote to prevent a filibuster is expected.
The bill includes several other Montana-related provisions. A line item to fund the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Fund at $40 million would underwrite a major forest restoration project in the Blackfoot-Clearwater area northwest of Missoula. Another permits transferring U.S. Air Force housing for use on Indian reservations, providing new Homeland Security grants in Missoula and Park counties.
And it includes the Food Safety bill which Tester amended to protect small farmers and ranchers from big-industry-style supervision. That bill was expected to pass Congress earlier in December before a technical glitch nearly tabled it.
Reaction to the logging/wilderness legislation repeated many of the arguments made over the past year, now with an end-of-the-year emphasis. Bill supporters agreed the time for debate was done.
"What's important is this could be the first piece of major public lands legislation for Montana in 25 years," said Bruce Farling of Montana Trout Unlimited. "And what it does is deliver what Montanans say they want. It gets rid of the bickering on what should be wilderness, what should be restored, and whether the timber industry should have some opportunities to get trees off public lands."
Montana Republican Party chairman Will Deschamps disagreed about what Montanans want.
"Montanans rejected (Tester's) wilderness legislation, which he couldn't even get passed in committee," Deschamps said in an e-mail statement. "Now, in some smoke-filled back room, he's managed to get Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to add it to the last bus leaving the station, a 2,000-page, $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill full of the earmarks that candidate Tester was against in 2006."
Tester's bill did have public hearings before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but did not receive a vote to move it to the full Senate.
Sun Mountain Lumber mill owner Sherm Anderson said he didn't have a problem with using an omnibus bill to get the legislation passed.
"Stand-alone bills are very difficult to be heard on the floor by both houses," said Anderson, who served with Tester in the state Legislature as a Republican. "There are way too many bills for the legislators to present. He's had many public hearings in Montana, heard from a lot of the public, from those who like it and those who oppose it. I think he did everything possible he could to work it through the process."
In the meantime, Sun Mountain had to lay off 30 workers last month. Anderson said he counted on the bill to help improve Montana's timber economy by prodding the Forest Service to approve more sales.
"We're not having any problems selling our lumber," Anderson said. "Where we were having problems was getting an affordable timber supply and we're completely surrounded by dead and dying forest from beetle infestation."
Bill critic Matthew Koehler of the Last Best Place Wildlands Campaign disputed the industry claim.
"Sen. Tester likes to say this is a jobs bill for the timber industry, but new home construction in America is down 70 percent and overall wood consumption is down 50 percent," Koehler said in an e-mail. "Just where are all these forests Sen. Tester wants cut down going to end up? The fact is that the Forest Service ended 2009 with more timber volume under contract to loggers and mills in our region than at any point in the last decade, but still mills either closed or have dramatically reduced their work force because of the economic crisis, which drags on with little relief in sight."
As Tester's bill evolved over the past 12 months, some changes would have made the Forest Service consider his method of collaborative stewardship logging as a nationwide forest management style. Tester staff members said the final bill is more Montana-specific. That was a concession to the Forest Service to avoid imposing a new national policy at the last minute, they said.
The final version also includes some compromises allowing more mountain biking in areas that might have been exclusively wilderness, and allowing the continuation of motorized use that already exists in some recreation areas.
"I think it's been talked about for the last two and a half years," University of Montana interim School of Forestry Dean Jim Birchfield said. "Tester's been very open about the goals and intent of the act. I think the people of Montana are ready for some action."