When Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester introduced his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act last July, he did something that is all too uncommon in today's political world. He kept a promise.
He'd told conservationists, loggers and recreationists that if they could reach agreement on contentious issues involving public lands -- including wilderness designation, deciding where logging and habitat restoration is appropriate, and, most importantly, getting popular support for their ideas -- he'd introduce a bill to help implement their vision.
That's exactly what this landmark legislation does. It takes the hard work of people in the Yaak country of northwest Montana and in the Seeley Lake and Blackfoot regions north of Missoula, and of recreationists and those who make a living around the sprawling Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest in the southwest corner of the state, and it packages it into a measure that:
- Protects 670,000 acres of some of Montana's finest wildlands as wilderness and another 300,000 acres as national recreation areas;
- Aids local mills by directing the Forest Service to do some sort of mechanical removal of vegetation for 10 years, through commercial logging, thinning or post and pole sales, for instance. This would affect extremely small portions of the Kootenai and Beaverhead-Deerlodge national forests -- about one-quarter of 1 percent in one year. The value of the trees removed will be re-invested in the forest -- used to help restore damaged habitats.
The bill also creates new partnerships with the Forest Service by ensuring that the agency works first with citizen groups on where and how these restoration projects will take place.
Is the Tester bill a good bill? Well, polling indicates that more than two-thirds of Montanans think so. Montanans are especially pleased because it came about because people with conflicting interests worked out their differences. Sherm Anderson, who owns a mill in Deer Lodge and helped develop some of the ideas in the measure, is a leading timber spokesman. He once opposed wilderness designations. But not now. Sherm regularly remarks to me: "Sometimes I can't believe how far we've both come." I tell him, it's about time.
Of course, the bill has its detractors. Some of them seem threatened by the prospect of people working together. They fear that cooperation will dilute the shouting and intimidation-by-litigation coming from the polar extremes in debates over land management.
Especially disappointing has been the small band of environmentalists who complain that the bill was developed secretly and they were shut out. Hardly. The bill results from ideas discussed for nearly four years in hundreds of face-to-face meetings, including with local government, conservationists, recreationists, ranchers and others.
As a proponent, I have been at many of these meetings. We explained our ideas and sought advice for improvement. Sen. Tester did the same, and he changed the bill based on what he heard. And that effort continues. The proposals embodied in the measure have been in the press, on the Web and detailed in publications for nearly four years. They certainly haven't been kept secret.
The only people "shut out" of the process were those who early on chose to be excluded. They attacked Sen. Tester, his bill and its supporters in blogs, e-mails, the media and in name-calling newspaper ads. Their message has been clear: They will never support legislation that accommodates timber interests or that runs counter to their self-righteous view of how public lands should be managed. Their approach can best be seen in their years of redundant legal challenges to the Forest Service.
The only contribution these opponents have offered is invective and "our way or no way" indignation. The environmental critics have lectured and patronized us, but they have never contacted me or other proponents and offered to sit down and explore common ground. I believe that's because they don't accept the basic premise of this bill: Everybody must get something.
Meanwhile, many others have had their say. That's why Trout Unlimited, the Montana Wilderness Association and the National Wildlife Federation -- which collectively have nearly 15,000 grassroots members in Montana -- have been joined by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, The Wilderness Society, American Rivers, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and other conservation interests in supporting the bill. That's why rural and urban county commissions support the measure, as do timber associations, ranchers, motorized and non-motorized recreationists, unions (including Montana's largest), business people, legislators, Montana Democrats Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Sen. Max Baucus and former Montana Republican Gov. Marc Racicot.
The support for the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act is unprecedented. All it took was open-mindedness and civility. Now what's wrong with that?
Bruce Farling is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited in Missoula, Montana.