MISSOULA — U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and a panel of advocates argued against proposals to transfer federal lands to state or private ownership during a Missoula visit on Tuesday.
“For some, that might sound good on the surface,” said Tester, D-Mont. said. “Montanans know how to manage the land. But the state Legislature also has to have a balanced budget. And there’s no way we could absorb our share of the $200 million the federal government now pays. The only way to keep the state budget whole would be to sell off those public lands.”
National Wildlife Federation representative Hayley Newman cited a 2014 Colorado College survey finding that 95 percent of western U.S. residents had visited public lands at least once in the past year.
“I guarantee those people took away lifelong memories,” Newman said. “There are all these green blots on the map, and in my experience I’ve come to realize how different and unique each of these forests is. Top-down national forest plans don’t account for what’s going on and needed on the ground.”
Tester clarified the difference he saw between local input and local ownership.
“The folks who know the forest best are the folks who see it every day,’ Tester said. “But there’s a huge difference — local ownership means access is severely restricted. We’ve seen that pattern in the past. We want Montana voices to be heard when it comes to the management of federal lands. That’s what the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act does and what the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act does. These are ground-based collaborations that have made their way to Washington.”
Tester authored the FJRA, which would make the U.S. Forest Service release at least 100,000 acres of timber on three national forests over 15 years for logging and other economic activity. It would also designate about 637,000 acres of new wilderness and 360,000 acres of recreation areas allowing some motorized or commercial use in Montana. The Rocky Mountain Front bill would preserve existing economic and recreation uses along 208,000 acres of the mountains west of Great Falls while designating 67,000 acres of wilderness.
Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., has co-sponsored a different bill by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., that would mandate logging on 50 percent of the Forest Service’s available timberland and raise barriers to legal challenges of timber sales. Daines also co-signed a letter to House Speaker John Boehner asking him to “oppose (place-based) Senate proposals that promise to break the current paralysis for a select few, but do not amount to national policy solutions.”
“It was disappointing that he (Daines) signed that letter,” Tester said. “It would be great to have him on board, and hopefully he’s not so boxed in he can’t still get on board. I think there are plenty of arguments to be made how state-based local management decisions are better handled than the top-down management that Doc Hastings has.”
Daines did not return requests for comment on the letter or public lands transfer Tuesday.
Tester agreed with Nick Gevock of the Montana Wildlife Federation that Congress appears to be setting the Forest Service up to fail by reducing its budgets and personnel while management tasks and challenges increase. This summer, Congress failed to pass a supplemental funding bill that would have allowed the Forest Service to cover much of its anticipated $600 million in firefighting expenses as natural disasters, rather than raid its annual budget by eliminating day-to-day management activity.
“If we don’t start managing forests in a different way, we’re going to lose infrastructure,” Tester said. “We’re going to lose it, and then it will all be on the taxpayer.”