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

Video/Audio from Tester's Logging Bill Press Conference
Matthew Koehler, WildWest Institute
Matthew Koehler, WildWest Institute
Jul 20, 2009 01:47 PM
If you have any doubt that this bill is really an effort by self-selected special interests groups and timber corporations to mandate industrial logging and give tens of millions in US taxpayer subsidies to Montana's timber industry (during the steepest decline in lumber consumption in US history) you need to watch the press conference and listen to the Q/A between Senator Tester and reporters.

Fortunately, the Great Falls Tribune's Lowdown blog has the entire press conference (in three parts) at:


Also at that link, you can download audio of the entire Q/A between Senator Tester and the reporters. Notice how Senator Tester was asked (and pretty much entirely ignored or danced around) a bunch of important questions regarding how all this mandated logging will pay for restoration work given there's no demand for lumber.

Well, one major concern with this bill is the notion that we can use money generated from logging to pay for needed restoration work. That strategy has largely failed to pay for much restoration work even when lumber demand and prices were high. The fact that the Forest Service in MT and ID has over $100 million in "shovel ready" restoration work just waiting for funding proves this point. Much of this restoration work was actually part of these former "stewardship logging contracts." The logging got finished, but there was no money left to do much of the restoration work.

Now that there's no demand for lumber and lumber prices are low and we're in the the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression this "stewardship logging" strategy is even more bankrupt.

For example, the Beaverhead Partners have already proposed a test pilot project called the East Deerlodge Valley Project. The Forest Service analyzed the project area and found 3000 acres suitable for logging. Apparently, in a private meeting with the Forest Service, MT TU Bruce Farling and Sun Mountain Lumber's Steve Flynn objected to "only" 3000 acres of logging and instead have proposed 10,000 acres for logging. I have the actual maps the Forest Service produced. Ironically, the maps are called the Sun Mountain Lumber Additions.

Funny thing, for every acre of more logging above 3000 acres, the project actually loses more money. How such an approach pays for all that restoration work these "partners" keep touting is a real mystery.
Senator Tester and Forest Jobs bill...
Vincent Vangocart
Vincent Vangocart
Jul 20, 2009 03:21 PM
Thanks for the fine reporting Ray, and your nice work on "Taking Control of the Machine." I read about Senator Tester's introduction of the Forest Jobs bill on Saturday, and I have to commend the Senator for taking on the tough task of coming up with a bill that has will please everyone.

Maybe that just isn't possible, judging by the criticism from environmentalists and multiple motors groups. But I took the time to read details of the bill, and I like it. I think it reflects what Montanans are seeking--a common sense, middle of the road approach over this whole debate.

I'll bet Montanans get behind him on this as soon as they get a chance to look it over.
Tester bill concerns from many quarters
Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
Jan 17, 2010 07:03 AM

The link above contains a sampling of the types of comments submitted to the US Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests regarding S1470, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, by members of the Last Best Place Wildlands Campaign. These comments were officially entered into the record for the Subcommittee's hearing on S1470.

The Last Best Place Wildlands Campaign is a coalition of conservation organizations and citizens dedicated to wildlands protection, forest restoration and the sound long-term management of America's public lands legacy. Our coalition includes 4th and 5th generation Montanans, hikers and backpackers, hunters and anglers, wildlife viewers, outfitters and guides, veterans, retired Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials, small-business owners, scientists, educators, craftspersons, and community leaders. Learn more about S1470 at http://testerloggingbilltruths.wordpress.com.

One also wonders if these comments below from the top US Forest Service official in the land will be taken into consideration by Senator Tester. Specifically, Under Secretary Harris Sherman had this to say at the Dec 17 Senate Hearing regarding S1470:

"If the Committee decides to go forward with a bill, we would urge you to first, alter or remove the highly specific timber supply requirements, which in our view are not reasonable or achievable.

Secondly, we like to urge you to amend the National Environmental Policy Act related provisions, which in our view are flawed and are legally vulnerable.

Thirdly, we would urge you to consider the budgetary implications to meet the bill's requirements. If we were to go forward with S1470 it would require far greater resources to do that and it will require us to draw these monies from forests within Region One or from other Regions."

"The levels of mechanical treatment that are called for in S1470 are likely unachievable and perhaps unsustainable."

"There is the likelihood that if Congress were to move forward and pass legislation such as we are talking about today, that other regions will want to do so similarly. Now, if that happens, my concern is that there will be somewhat of a balkanization that occurs between the different regions in the country. Those who are first in may get funded and those who come later may find there are less funds available. There will be certain 'haves' and 'have nots' that result from this process. Then in someways there is no longer a true national review, an effort to sift out what priorities ought to exist across the country."
Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
Aug 10, 2013 08:03 AM
For the latest developments on Senator Tester's mandated logging bill, see:

Will Enviro ‘Collaborators’ Support Rep Daines Mandated Logging Bill?


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.