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The Wilderness Compromise of S. 37 and Senator John Tester

While much of the media followed the ever-shifting tea leaves during the budget negotiations between Senator Patty Murray and Representative Paul Ryan, the background tug-of-war over wilderness protections continued this month. Two separate actions, a Senate bill sponsored by Senator John Tester (D-MT) and a statement of policy from the pro-logging group Federal Forest Resource Coalition, highlighted the spectrum of opinion among logging industry, ranchers, outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists.

Montana’s Snowcrest Mountains

Montana’s Snowcrest Mountains. Credit: SeattleRay/Flickr

Sen. Tester’s bill, S. 37 — the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act of 2013, mandates specific amounts of logging on national forest land while designating over 600,000 acres of wilderness. With its compromise between utility of forests and preservation of wild areas, the bill won the support of a variety of different interest groups, including livestock interests and several local wilderness associations. One important juncture in garnering the multi-interest support was the treatment of 20,000 acres in the Snowcrest Mountains that were originally designated as potential wilderness. Following conversations between livestock and wilderness organizations, those 20,000 acres were dropped from consideration. Local ranchers graze cattle on those acres in the summertime and needed access to repair stock tanks and other ranching infrastructure. The acreage will instead be designated a special management area, leaving its wilderness quality while allowing ranchers much-needed access. That compromise gained S. 37 support from otherwise opposing factions, with an additional amendment to allow snowmobile access to Mt. Jefferson winning the isolated praise of fellow western Senator Jim Risch (R-ID).

With its compromises and amendments, the bill passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week and heads to the Senate floor in the new year. It will, however, face stiff headwinds from Republican senators who believe it does not do enough to promote timber harvests. The bill is also opposed by some Montana conservation groups due to the original proposed 677,000 acres of wilderness dropping to about 640,000. Even should S. 37 be passed by the Senate, it will have a tough time passing through the House of Representatives, with the Republican-controlled body generally opposed to wilderness protection bills.

Yet for all of the imperfections of S. 37, depending on your point of view, it is a working demonstration that compromise is possible between even longtime opposing groups. The other side of the coin is the recent policy statement released by the Federal Forest Resource Coalition (“Coalition”). The Coalition is a trade group that represents 650 wood products companies, so access to forests for logging is a high priority for many of the group’s members. According to the Coalition’s policy statement, 28 percent of national forest lands are suitable for logging. Congress should designate no new wilderness until the management of those national forest acres reflect priority for timber production. In addition to shifting the focus of that 28 percent of forests, the Coalition also pushes for a streamlined environmental review process under — yes, it is back — the National Environmental Policy Act. The policy statement also pushes for wilderness areas to not: be oddly shaped or isolated tracts, be in Alaska or block access to logging areas. And any proposed new designations should have to carry the support of the local House delegation and both senators.

It seems unnecessary to state that conservation groups think the Coalition’s statement is less that of policy and more a list of demands. But here is the take-away: It’s easy for parties on either side of this issue to publish a policy statement, which conveniently avoids the unnecessary burden of compromise required to enact legislation.

Policy statements from all interest groups are designed specifically to shift political thought while it is legislation that actually creates the policy. Policy statements can be as strident as groups wish them to be, but it is compromise, demonstrated by S. 37 and the ultimate Murray-Ryan budget plan, that actually moves policy forward.

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