What makes Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act (S1470) so contentious?

Its stated purpose: “To sustain the economic development and recreational use of National Forest System land and other public land in the state of Montana, to add certain land to the National Wilderness Preservation System, to release certain wilderness study areas, to designate new areas for recreation, and for other purposes.” Who could possibly object to such reasonable and worthy objectives?

What is most disconcerting about what Tester and Sen. Max Baucus, both Democrats, propose is the whole-hog adoption of economic neoliberalism to implement the bill’s purposes. Neoliberalism is a system that liberates “free enterprise” from government controls, ostensibly to boost profits. It represents a radical departure from New Deal economic liberalism, and the abandonment of the belief that government should advance the common good and protect the commonwealth. What Tester and Baucus propose is right-wing doctrine, pure and simple.

If passed, S1470 threatens the future of publicly owned, publicly managed national forests in the United States.

As a citizen and taxpayer, I object to mandatory logging quotas and management control by local advisory committees dominated by the same big-money interests that are seldom held accountable for ecological damage to our public forests and waterways.

Compare what’s being crammed down our throats to the impressive accomplishments of Idaho’s Sen. Frank Church and our own Sen. Lee Metcalf. Neither Church nor Metcalf would have considered privatizing national forests, or outsourcing traditional management responsibilities of the Forest Service.

I believe the best way to honor the Church-Metcalf legacy is to recognize the importance of the wildland ecosystems and wildlife corridors of the Northern Rockies bioregion. Outside of Alaska, these public landscapes contain the largest blocks of roadless lands in the nation. In the lower 48 states, it’s where native species still thrive on lands that remain virtually unchanged since the Lewis and Clark expedition. These vital fragments of America’s wilderness and wildlife heritage need protection, not privatization and deregulation.

True fiscal conservatives argue for wilderness designation because it represents the lowest-cost management option per acre, requiring minimal government intervention.

The preferred alternative to the Tester-Baucus bill is the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, HR980, being considered in the House Natural Resources Committee. It preserves the biological integrity of the Northern Rockies, designates nearly 7 million acres of wilderness in Montana, 9.5 million acres of wilderness in Idaho, 5 million acres of wilderness in Wyoming, 750,000 acres in eastern Oregon, and 500,000 acres in eastern Washington on federal public land. Included in this total is over 3 million acres of back country in Yellowstone, Glacier and Grand Teton National Parks.

Before Congress acts, we should fully appreciate the fact that the public wildlands of the Northern Rockies are an irreplaceable gift belonging to all Americans. Montana’s Democratic congressmen need to show a modicum of respect before destroying Sen. Lee Metcalf’s remarkable public lands legacy.

Steve Kelly of Bozeman was the Democratic nominee for U.S. representative in 2002, previously ran as an independent and serves on the boards of several Montana environmental organizations.

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