A farmer's wilderness deal


I followed a log truck on a dirt road, breathing the dust it churned up -- heading to the RY Timber mill in Townsend, Montana, last Friday.


The truck stopped on the scales by the mill to have its load weighed.

I kept going only a few more yards to strangest-ever press conference for a wilderness proposal.

The star was Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the most genuine workingman in Congress. He's a third-generation farmer who comes home from D.C. frequently to drive a tractor and turn whatever wrenches need turning on his spread ...

Tester stood in a curve of the dirt road beyond the log scales. He looked far more like a farmer than a senator -- with his flattop haircut and his bulk bulging in a plain blue shirt, the sleeves rolled up on his thick forearms, belly sagging over his belt, black jeans and black boots. There was no shade and he sweated under the hot sun.

The usual flags (Montana and America) flanked Tester, their shiny bronzed stands resting on the dirt. A sign in front of him announced the reason he was there: He was unveiling a new bill that he wants to push through Congress. The sign said "The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act." It had more phrases in smaller letters, none of which even mentioned the word "wilderness."

About 60 people -- including at least a dozen from the Montana Wilderness Association -- formed a well-behaved crowd facing the senator. Many carried their own signs that said scripted lines like, "Thank You Sen. Tester." Journalists pointed cameras and microphones and took notes.

Finally it was time to begin. Everyone faced the American flag as RY Timber's general manager, Ed Regan, led a reciting of the pledge of allegiance.

Then Tester stepped to the podium that was also placed on the dirt road and began talking about his bill. It would designate more than 660,000 acres of new wilderness areas while mandating logging on 100,000 acres over the next 10 years, plus a lot of forest restoration projects, as the Great Falls Tribune reported in a good summation. "This bill has something good in it for everybody," Tester said.

But it was clear that the speech was another form of labor for Tester.

He read the pages of a prepared statement, glancing up at the crowd now and then. He seemed a bit self-conscious even in the physical act of turning the pages with his left hand, which has only a thumb and a little finger. He lost the other three fingers on that hand when he was a kid working in a custom butcher shop on his parent's farm (a meatgrinder accident). When he wasn't turning the pages of his statement, he stuck that hand in his jeans pocket. 

Tester's toughness is also clear in how he's grinded out the components of his wilderness bill, already asserting himself as a leader just partway through his debut Senate term.

I wrote about the controversies in High Country News, under headlines: "Taking Control of the Machine: Environmentalists and timber companies push big experiments in national forests."

Tester's bill would affect three national forests in Montana. More accurately, it would take control of some aspects of managing those three forests -- reducing the U.S. Forest Service's degree of control.

Much of it is based on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership, a collaborative effort that seeks to guarantee a flow of timber to local mills while doing wilderness and forest restoration (as my story explained in some detail).

As Tester said, "Montana forest communities are in crisis."

Tester's bill makes some changes to the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership's proposal for the B-D forest. It would:

-- Designate more than 500,000 acres of new wilderness areas in the B-D forest and other nearby federal land (about 65,000 acres less than the Partnership wants).

-- Create three new national recreation areas in the B-D forest totaling about 250,000 acres -- a gesture to those who like motorized recreation. Motors would be allowed on designated "trails and routes" in those recreation areas.

-- And instead of promising to reclaim all new roads that are blazed for logging and restoration projects in the B-D forest, Tester's bill says some new roads might be converted into recreational trails (motorized and nonmotorized).

Basically, Tester added some gimmes for the B-D forest motorheads.

The timber industry would get guarantees of 7,000 acres of logging per year in the B-D forest plus 3,000 acres per year in the Kootenai National Forest plus help building a bioenergy plant to use small-diameter timber.

Tester's bill would also "release" more than 200,000 acres that are now in "wilderness study areas" in and near the B-D forest. Those acres would no longer have that special protection.

Tester's website has the full text of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act and a map showing the areas it would affect in the three national forests. The Missoulian has straight stories on the initial press conference amid the sawdust and a second public meeting a day later in another timber town.

Environmentalists who don't like the Partnership and the bill get some additional play in an earlier post on this blog and on NewWest.net.

Tester concluded his press conference on the dirt road talking about what will happen with the bill. He said he hopes it will get some discussion in the Senate this fall and be passed early next year. He also said it may be tuned more as he hears from more of his constituents -- and as the interest groups take their concerns to the whole Senate.

"I look forward to hearing feedback," Tester said. "In some aspects the work is just beginning."

By then he was using his ground-up left hand to hold a folded paper towel, pressing the paper towel to his forehead repeatedly to wipe off his sweat.

"Nobody gets everything in this business (politics)," he said. "It's a lot of give and take."


(Photos by Ray)

Update: The former head of the Montana Wilderness Association, a timber analyst and a radio show weigh in

About Ray

Ray has been a Western journalist since 1979. He's now High Country News senior editor, based in Bozeman, Montana. He's earned national recognition including a George Polk Award for political reporting, a Sidney Hillman Foundation Journalism Award for investigating oil-field accidents, and an Investigative Reporters & Editors scroll for going undercover as a prison inmate. He's had three novels published.