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Clarifying the Tester Bill

The controversy over Senator Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Bill is likely to get some national attention in a week or so as the bill receives its first hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests in the our nation’s capitol. That bill has been called both Tester’s “logging bill” as well as Tester’s “wilderness bill.” Critics point out that the title of the bill mentions “forest jobs” but does not mention “wilderness” at all, leaving some suspicion as to what the main purpose of the bill is.

Wilderness advocates who support the bill point out that the bill would add 670,000 acres of wilderness and another 225,000 acres of National Recreation Areas where timber harvest will be prohibited. That’s approaching a million acres of protected land, clearly an admirable goal.

The critics, also wilderness advocates, shake their heads in dismay because at the same time that bill appears to open so much roadless wild land to potential logging. Consider the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Montana’s largest National Forest. It contains 3.3 million acres of land, mostly undeveloped, high lodgepole pine forest. Forest managers there have classified less than ten percent of that land as suitable for commercial timber management. Yet, Tester’s bill would classify 1.9 million acres of land as “suitable for timber production” where “timber harvest is allowed.”

The 500,000 acres of new wilderness that Tester’s bill would create in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest somewhat shrinks in significance compared to the area four times as large that appears to be declared open for timber harvest. That is especially shocking since the area now declared open to logging is over eight times larger than what had previously been deemed suitable for timber harvest.

This may just be the result of bad horse trading and a conscious gamble on the part of the collaborative that originally negotiated this proposal. The fact is that the vast majority of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is likely to remain unroaded and unlogged indefinitely into the future, primarily protected by economics. It is far too costly to go after most of the standing inventory of trees there and those trees have little commercial value, at least for now.

Tester’s bill actually attempts to steer the logging that the bill mandates away from the backcountry and limit it to the already human dominated edges of the forest. The bill orders the Forest Service, when choosing the lands where the timber harvest is to take place, to give “priority” to lands that already have high densities of roads, have already been relatively heavily logged, and contain forests that are at high risk for insect epidemics or high-severity wildfires.

The actual meaning of these limits, however, may hinge on whether all of these criteria have to apply or whether only one of them need apply. That last criteria is loose enough that it by itself could open the entire Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest to timber harvest since lodgepole pine forests naturally tend to experience large stand-replacing fires.

The level of timber harvest that would be annually mandated on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest under Tester’s bill can also be read in either comforting or alarming terms. The bill requires 7,000 acres a year to be harvested. To supporters of the bill, this is a tiny acreage of harvest, a tiny fraction of one percent of the huge 3.3 million acre forest.

To critics, although 7,000 acres appears trivially small compared to the total size of the forest, it is not so small compared to the part of the forest deemed suitable for commercial timber harvest, 300,000 acres, of which the 7,000 acres are 2.3 percent. That level of harvest would be sustainable only if new trees grew to commercial size in about 40 years, an unlikely event in a high, cold, lodgepole pine forest in Montana.

To critics, this is simply an unsustainable level of harvest. Looking back over 40 years of timber harvest on that forest, 7,000 acres of timber harvest was reached only once, in 1971, in the heyday of aggressive Forest Service harvests across the nation. That level of harvest was once again approached in the last peak harvest year on Forest Service lands in the late 1980s when 6,000 acres were harvested. Between 1967 and 1989, when the Forest Service was still largely unhindered by environmental concerns and harvested record numbers of trees, the average acreage harvested on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest was about 4,000 acres. The Tester bill would seek to force a harvest level two-thirds higher than that previous unfettered average harvest level.

Supporters of Tester’s bill insist that the intent is not to open up most of the forest to timber harvest but quite the opposite: to support modest timber harvests where they would do the most good and the least harm. If that is the case, the language of the bill should be tightened up to accomplish exactly that by limiting the areas open to potential timber harvests to a much smaller portion of the forest and by making clear that the “priority” areas for timber harvest are in fact those areas that have already been roaded and open to logging and where the timber harvests can help protect human habitation. Finally, the level of mandated timber harvest should be set based on what foresters indicate is a sustainable level of harvest given the characteristics of that forest.

Such a tightening up of the language and numbers in the Tester bill should be acceptable to the wilderness advocates who support this bill since it would simply assure that the bill does what they say it is intended to do. If timber interests howl in protest over such clarification that should give the rest of us pause as to exactly what the Tester bill is really all about.

Dr. Thomas Michael Power is the author of Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies: the Search for a Value of Place and Post-Cowboy Economics: Pay and Prosperity in the New American West. Power is a Research Professor in the Economics Department at the University of Montana.

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