Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tester Response Poor Strategy

Tester’s Response Poor Strategy

In my discussions with some environmental advocates relative to Senator Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation legislation (FJRA), I get the sense that many feel lucky to have any wilderness legislation before Congress. It is easy to understand how one could get such an outlook since there hasn’t been new wilderness legislation passed in Montana in decades. The main problem for Montana has been getting someone to sponsor wilderness legislation and in that regard Senator Tester is the first Montana politicians to do so in many years. But does that mean wilderness supporters must accept anything proposed that may have long term environmental harm and/or unintended political consequences as a “cost of doing business”?

Wilderness advocates often forget that Senator Tester and the timber industry need the wilderness advocates more than the wilderness advocates need either the timber industry or Senator Tester.

Passage of wilderness legislation is not unique. Year in and year out, whether Washington D.C. is dominated by Republicans or Democrats, wilderness legislation is passed. Even such Presidents who were largely hostile to environmental protection like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush signed wilderness legislation. It is really a mundane and routine process—so long as one does not deviate from the traditional rules and guidelines of the Wilderness Act. Thus passage of legislation for new wilderness areas in Montana is not really in doubt so long as the proponents do not try to modify the terms of wilderness designation. If Senator Tester wanted to pass wilderness legislation, there is no doubt he could.

On the other hand, changing the terms for logging on public lands is far more difficult to enact into law. The mandated logging quotas, changes in NEPA requirements, and other terms of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act (FJRA) that would hasten destructive logging of our national forests is far more difficult to pass—because as much as Senator Tester and the timber proponents hate to admit it, these are national lands, and thus not totally subject to the whims of Montana politicians and industry. In fact, no logging quotas were ever passed through the normal legislative process. The only successful and temporary increases in logging were added on as sneaky last minute “riders” to other must pass legislation. They never had the political support to pass on their own merits.

If Senator Tester and the timber industry really want to enact legislation that will expedite logging of Montana’s national forests, they are the ones that have an uphill battle. In fact, they could not even have a chance of passing such legislation without at least the tacit support of Montana’s and Nation’s environmental community. It is the wilderness proponents who hold the cards for passage of any legislation that will change the laws and regulations regarding how logging occurs on national forest lands.

Additionally, the only reason the timber industry is anxious to deal at all is that groups like the Alliance for Wild Rockies, Wild West Institute and other organizations have successfully challenged illegal and irresponsible logging proposals by the Forest Service. Without such pressure, the timber industry would have no reason to support legislative relief at all. It is the big legal stick environmentalists carry that has gotten the attention of the timber industry. And the only way the timber industry can seek relief is by having Senator Tester bend or modify the laws that surround management on public lands.

Some political strategists believe that the only way that wilderness legislation will be enacted in Montana is on the back of industry subsidies. It is reasonable to come to this conclusion since when polled about whether Montanans favor environmental protection or jobs, their response is captured by the famous quip “it’s the economy stupid”.

A number of national, regional and state wide wilderness advocacy group professionals have told me they are worried that if Tester’s bill passes, it will become the new “norm” so that the only way a wilderness bill will be successful is if it is packaged as a resource giveaway to some industry.

They also fear some of the precedents in the Tester bill such as allowing ranchers to use ATVS in wilderness that might further erode the integrity of the Wilderness Act if widely adopted. Wilderness advocates in states with a lot of BLM lands grazed by livestock are particularly worried about such precedent setting aspects of FJRA. Many of these wilderness advocates see Tester’s legislation through the lens of a national constituency. They all support the changes to Tester’s bill advocated by the Senate Energy Committee draft released a few weeks ago.

Without the wilderness components of his bill, Tester’s proposed changes to public lands forestry practices would never even get a hearing; much less have chance for passage. Tester needs the political cover and “feel good” benefits provided by the support of the environmental community to pass his pro logging legislation.

An honest appraisal of the public lands affected by Tester’s bill would demonstrate that the public does not need to log these lands. They are biologically marginal lands that cannot be sustainably logged. Logging these lands is only feasible by externalizing the environmental harm and with the addition of government subsidies. Given its low productivity, it’s not coincidental that the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest (BDNF) always loses taxpayer money on its timber sales. Even the relatively more productive Kootenai National Forest is a money loser since the best and most accessible timber was logged long ago.

At the same time, the highest and best use of these public lands isn’t timber production, but protection of watersheds, wildlife, scenery, and wildlands. Why should anyone rationally support degrading what are national treasures to get back something as mundane as a 2 x 4 that we either get elsewhere at less costs and/or better yet, learn to reduce our needs so that logging these nationally significant lands isn’t necessary at all.

Every benefit ascribed to logging can be achieved much more efficiently and at less cost by other means—if they are necessary at all. Far too often logging prescriptions are solutions to manufactured problems. For instance, if one truly wanted to reduce fire hazard to communities, one would demand that citizen’s fire proof their homes instead of trying to fireproof the forest. County commissioners must stop approving subdivisions in the fire plain self-creating the hazardous conditions they later whine to the federal government to relieve.

If watershed restoration is the goal, one can remove culverts and close roads without logging, especially since new logging will create additional harm to watersheds that in turn will have to be remediated. Even the creation of jobs could be accomplished without new logging as watershed restoration (road closures, etc.), prescribed burns, and other land management actions would create employment opportunities and likely at far lower cost than the proposed logging subsidies in Tester’s bill.

Senator Tester current strategy of dead on arrival is politically foolish. If instead of being obstinate, he could accept the Senate Energy Committee recommendations and still declare victory. If he needs to save face, he can resort to the tried and true Montana tradition of blaming eastern “elitists” for forcing him to accept some compromises on logging. After all eastern elitists have done this kind of chicanery many times before; shoving down the throats of Montanans such unpopular things as Yellowstone Park, Glacier Park, and even national forests.

The energy committee recommendations still permit logging, and have some other provisions favorable to the industry—though without a mandated quota and loss of regulatory environmental checks. Tester could take credit for creation of jobs in rural Montana while creating the first new wilderness in decades. That would still be a pretty good accomplishment for a first time Senator.

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