Editor's Introduction: How much experimentation should be allowed in the national forest system?

High Country News posed that question in a recent cover story by Ray Ring.

Now Martin Nie, a professor of natural resource policy at the University of Montana, airs his concerns in a conversational paper, "Place-based Forest Law: Questions and Opportunities Presented by Senator Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act" (full text below).

Montana Sen. Tester seeks to designate more than a half-million acres of Montana wilderness while guaranteeing a flow of timber to Montana mills. His proposal emerged from local negations between some environmental groups, timber companies and other interests who want to overcome gridlock in some forests.

Nie worries that Tester's proposal might shred environmental laws and encourage other local experiments around the West that would ultimately dismantle current systems for forest management.

But Nie also sees an opportunity for local experiments that would not be so dramatic attacking the whole system.

HCN's Ring also focused on Tester's proposal, and followed up with a colorful account of Tester introducing his proposal in a Montana timber town. Ring described the proposal as "A Farmer's Wilderness Bill."

Lately Tester has been circulating around Montana explaining his proposal to sometimes hostile audiences in Helena, rural Dillon and Bozeman.

These attempts to change national forest management from the ground up will likely keep building momentum for some kind of reforms, possibly through Congressional action or Obama administration tuning of regulations. We'll keep you posted.

Place-based Forest Law:
Questions and Opportunities Presented by Senator Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act

By Martin Nie
College of Forestry & Conservation
University of Montana

There is increasing interest in resolving multiple use conflicts through place-based (national forest-specific) legislation.  Throughout the West, divergent interests are negotiating how they would like particular forests to be managed.  Many of these proposals include provisions related to wilderness designation, economic development, forest restoration, and funding mechanisms, among others.  But unlike more typical collaborative efforts, some groups are seeking codification of their agreements. 

Numerous factors have precipitated this interest in going to Washington in search of legislation, including perceptions of agency gridlock, unresolved roadless and wilderness issues, and the disarray that now characterizes forest planning.  Nowhere is the place-based approach more apparent than in Montana.  In July 2009 Montana Senator Jon Tester introduced Senate Bill 1470, the “Forest Jobs and Recreation Act (RJVA).”  If enacted, it would direct management on three national forests in his state; the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, and parts of the Lolo and Kootenai.  This approach is a significant departure from the status quo and it raises several questions and opportunities that are addressed below. 

Before proceeding with the questions, some background is necessary.  Prior to the RJVA’s introduction, three separate groups of interests negotiated proposals for how they would like individual national forests to be managed.  These groups included the controversial “Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership” dealing with the largest national forest in Montana, the smaller-sized “Three Rivers Challenge” focused on part of the Kootenai, and the relatively modest “Blackfoot-Clearwater Landscape Stewardship Project” centered on part of the Lolo.  The Senator modified some of these agreements and then lumped them together into one multi-faceted bill.