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The U.S. Committee on Energy and Natural Resources heard testimony Wednesday mainly in support of Sen. Jon Tester’s revived Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, a few hours after a telephone conference call involving Rep. Denny Rehberg and others opposed to the bill.

Tester, a Democrat, is up for re-election in 2012, and Rehberg, a Republican who is challenging Tester, is accusing the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act of being crafted behind closed doors by special interest groups. Tester, as well as both Democrats and Republicans who helped create the act, vehemently deny that allegation, and say Rehberg is making the bill a political issue instead.

“Representative Rehberg has had the opportunity to get on board with this jobs bill and to be a part of it. I have personally talked to him on several occasions from the very beginning,” said Sherm Anderson, the president of Sun Mountain Lumber and a former Republican state senator who testified before the committee Wednesday. “I’ve asked for his input. He even asked me to talk with several groups and try to negotiate.

“I tried, but they refused to sit down and talk with me because they have taken a ‘no more wilderness’ stance, and we are trying to move beyond that. … I’m saddened by the fact that Representative Rehberg is making this a political issue.”

During the hearing, Harris Sherman, a U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary, reversed his previous testimony from December 2009 and said they generally support the plan, which would designate about 666,260 acres of wilderness as well as mandate logging on 100,000 during a 15-year period in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai national forests. It also forces the Forest Service to implement watershed and forest restoration projects and designates 369,500 acres of recreation areas.

“Much progress has been made on this bill,” Sherman said, adding that it will bring important jobs to Montana. “It will allow significant mechanical and restoration work to be done. And will bring new land into our national wilderness systems. The legislation also promotes landscape scale restoration, stewardship contracts, and is supportive of integrated resource restoration.”

He added that while they have a few concerns with the bill, those are “largely technical” in nature and they are working with Tester to address those issues.

Tester said the bill is getting more supporters each day, with the chamber of commerce in Missoula and the Montana AFL-CIO endorsing it within the past month.

“This bill was brought to me by Montanans who are tired of fighting over forest management, recreation and wilderness designation,” Tester testified. “… A few years ago, a few brave Montanans decided to sit at the same table. Anyone willing to negotiate was welcome. And working together, they literally and figuratively mapped their common ground.

“This is not a bill made by Democrats or Republicans. It is a bill made by Democrats and Republicans.”

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Tester added that they have made some changes to the bill in light of comments received from the public. It was first introduced in 2009, but wasn’t passed by Congress, so Tester is reintroducing the updated version of the bill to the new session of Congress.

The newest version extends the mandated logging period from 10 to 15 years, which was requested by the Forest Service; changes some boundaries for some of the work; and changes some of the process provisions. It also clarifies that the Forest Service can’t take funds from other regions or forests to fund the bill, as well as numerous other alterations.

“I heard feedback from thousands of Montanans. I received thousands of letters, met for hours and hours with Forest Service staff, and worked hard with the members and staff of this committee,” Tester said.

Kerry White with Citizens for Balanced Use said the Act still closes too many trails to motorized vehicles and other uses by designating more areas as wilderness, which he called “the land of no use.”

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“There’s quite a bit of opposition in the state against more wilderness,” White said, adding that trees killed by the recent mountain pine beetle epidemic in wilderness areas couldn’t be logged.

But that’s what Sherman likes about the bill in that it would make it easier to remove those trees, especially when they’re close to residences.

The bill also is opposed by some environmental groups who argue that it has politicians mandating where and how much logging takes place in the national forests, rather than land managers, and that it turns some of Montana’s Wilderness Study Areas into permanent motorized recreation areas, or releases them for development.

“We are troubled that Sen. Tester and his collaborators refuse to accept the fact that this bill contains a number of irresponsible and unnecessarily risky provisions, which not only could cause negative impacts to Forest Service budgets in our region, but also threatens America’s national forest legacy by establishing a new precedent where D.C. politicians simply mandate resource extraction levels on our public lands,” said Matthew Koehler, executive director of the WildWest Institute. “That’s a road we needn’t travel down.”

The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act can be viewed online at tester.senate.gov/forest.

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com

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