Montana Sen. Tester's bill to expand wilderness passes Senate committee despite GOP opposition

HELENA, Mont. – A bill by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester to expand wilderness and mandate more logging on federal lands in Montana passed its first test Thursday in a Senate committee despite opposition by Republicans who called the measure unbalanced.

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources voted to move the bill out of committee and to the full Senate. It was the first vote on the bill since Tester introduced it in 2009 as a compromise between environmentalists and loggers to break through the gridlock of forest management.

So if it took four years for the bill to get a committee vote, how long will it take for the full Senate to vote on it?

“That’s a hell of a good question,” Tester said in a phone interview after the vote. “We’ve got to work with (Senate) leadership to find time to either address it either as a stand-alone (bill) or an amendment to another bill.”

That discussion with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid likely won’t happen until after the New Year, Tester said.

The newest version of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act would designate 640,000 acres of new permanent wilderness in Montana, according to Tester spokeswoman Andrea Helling.

It also mandates mechanical treatment, where logging and other forest management can happen, on 100,000 acres in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and the Kootenai National Forest over 15 years.

The measure also designates about 370,000 acres for other recreational use, such as snowmobiling.

The ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, said she believes the measure designates too much permanent wilderness in exchange for too little logging.

“That’s not a fair trade,” she said.

She and most other Republican members of the committee voted against the measure. One Republican, U.S. Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, voiced his support for it.

Tester said Murkowski’s comments just reflect that more education about the measure is needed, and that the bill would help keep the timber industry in business with a reliable supply.

“This is 100,000 acres of wood that our timber mills are going to be happy as a lark to get,” Tester said.

If the bill passes the Senate, it goes to the House, where its fate is uncertain. Tester said Republicans on the Senate energy committee told him that Rep. Steve Daines was opposed to the measure, when Tester thought Daines would remain neutral on it.

“I’ve got to find somebody else to work with” in the House, Tester said.

Daines spokeswoman Alee Lockman said Daines has “concerns that it is not a balanced approach” but said that doesn’t mean he opposes it.

The congressman “is still taking Senator Tester’s bill under consideration,” Lockman said in an email.