HELENA — U.S. Sen. Jon Tester's bill to increase both logging and wilderness areas has been included in a final spending package the lame-duck Congress is expected to take up in the coming days.
The Montana Democrat has been working in the final days of the session to get his proposal attached to legislation that will be considered before Congress wraps up its work. It was added Tuesday to the Omnibus Appropriations Act, but still faces several hurdles if it is to become law.
Tester's bill would create new wilderness areas in parts of Montana, increase logging requirements and establish permanent recreation areas.
He said the bill would be a big boost to the logging industry, designate areas for motorized users and give environmentalists increased protections in other parts of the forest.
Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, who many Republicans hope will run against Tester in 2012, slammed the inclusion of Tester's bill in the spending package without undergoing a full committee hearings process in both chambers.
"This is government at its worst," Rehberg said. "These are exactly the sort of underhanded tactics the American people rejected in November. Apparently, the message didn't get through."
He called it "a shameful attempt to force-feed Montanans another dose of big-government."
Criticism also came from ardent environmentalists, who argue the bill was written largely by a select group of logging companies and environmentalists.
"Many Montanans have expressed serious, substantive concerns with this bill, including the mandated logging provisions, motors in wilderness and turning some wild lands into permanent motorized recreation areas," said Matthew Koehler of the Last Best Place Wildlands Campaign. "That's a major reason why the bill never made it out of the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, never made it to the floor of the U.S. Senate and never was introduced in the U.S. House."
Tester's office argued the bill was the subject of debate in Montana since he first introduced the concept in 2009, and received a full hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee late last year.
Supporters, a group of loggers and environmentalists hoping to break through years of gridlock on the issue, said that anyone who was willing to sit at the table and negotiate a final compromise was more than welcome during the drafting of the idea.
Logging mill owner Sherm Anderson, a former state Republican lawmaker, has been an ardent supporter and said he was "thrilled" to learn the measure is much more closer to passage this month. He said critics, which include Rehberg, are out of the mainstream.
"You have some strange bed partners there. You have folks that I would call the radical left who don't like the bill due to the timber portion, and then you have just the opposite from the radical right who oppose it for the exact opposite reasons," Anderson said. "That tells me that everyone in the middle thinks this is a pretty good deal, and that's the majority."
Tester's office said the final version is very similar to the version he originally proposed in July last year.
The bill would mandate 70,000 acres of mechanical treatment on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and 30,000 acres of mechanical treatment in the Kootenai National Forest over 15 years. That was increased from 10 years based upon a request from the Forest Service.
It would also designation about 370,000 acres of permanent recreation areas, such as for snowmobiles.
A centerpiece of the legislation would designate 666,260 acres of wilderness, about 2,800 less than originally proposed.