A draft spending bill released Tuesday by the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee includes legislation that would create the first new or expanded wilderness areas in Montana in decades, while mandating logging on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai national forests.
The 1,924-page omnibus bill includes a 44-page section called the Montana Forest Jobs and Restoration Initiative, which generally is the same legislation unveiled last year by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
Republicans reportedly are threatening to halt the bill, which was proposed by Democrats, saying it includes hidden earmarks and spending that would become law without the appropriate review process.
If the bill doesn’t pass by Saturday, the government could shut down this weekend. The federal government operates on an Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 fiscal year, but an agreement hasn’t been reached on funding; instead, last fall Congress passed a “continuing resolution,” which is a stop-gap measure to keep the government operating until a budget is passed. That resolution expires Saturday, so either passage of this bill, or another continuing resolution, is needed to keep government operating.
Aaron Murphy, a spokesman for Tester, notes that the Senate is expected to vote on the bill in the coming days, and while they’re hopeful Tester’s legislation will remain in place, until the law passes nothing is final.
“Jon’s pleased that his Senate colleagues agree it’s time to put the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act up for a vote. This is just another step in what has been a year-and-a-half-long process to create jobs in Montana,” Murphy said in a statement.
The bill would designate 666,260 acres of new wilderness areas and 369,500 acres of designated recreation areas. Members of the Montana Wilderness Association, which has worked on the legislation for at least five years, are thrilled with the forward momentum.
“We think it’s a great next step; we’re not there yet, but it is very promising,” said Kristi Ponozzo, MWA’s communication director. “We are just keeping our fingers crossed and hoping it happens.”
Not all wilderness enthusiasts support the bill, noting that it also mandates logging on nearly 100,000 acres within the next 15 years, and releases some areas from being managed as wilderness.
“I think it’s terrible,” said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “It opens up roadless areas for logging … and Tester is breaking his promise that he wouldn’t use riders for public lands legislation. It allows motorized sheep herding in wilderness areas and allows military helicopters to land in wilderness areas.
“I don’t know why anybody should celebrate this.”
Matthew Koehler, executive director of the WildWest Institute, added that Tester is skirting the system by including his legislation in the spending bill.
“Many Montanans have expressed serious, substantive concerns with this bill, including the mandated logging provisions, motors in wilderness (areas), Forest Service budget implications and turning some wild lands into permanent motorized recreation areas,” Koehler said. “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.
“Instead of honestly listening to these concerns, it’s unfortunate that Sen. Tester decided to work behind the scenes to attach his logging bill to a completely unrelated 2,000-page, $1 trillion-plus spending bill.”
Denny Rehberg, Montana’s sole representative and a Republican, also denounced the inclusion of Tester’s legislation in the bill.
“This is government at its worst. Montanans have had zero input on this new wilderness bill. It hasn’t even had a public hearing in Congress,” Rehberg said in a statement. “What’s more, Sen. Tester is jamming his unpopular bill into yet another trillion-dollar spending bill jam-packed with pork.
“… There’s not enough time to read this bill, let alone seek out public input. This is nothing but a shameful attempt to force-feed Montanans another dose of big-government before the clock runs out on the Pelosi regime.”
A public hearing was held in the Senate committee on the legislation, but it never was forwarded from there.
Tester’s office says the legislation will create jobs by mandating the logging, which also would force the U.S. Forest Service to implement watershed and forest restoration projects. In addition, Tester’s initiative would cause the Forest Service to prioritize work in wooded areas near communities and areas with high road densities. It’s been deemed “deficit neutral,” meaning that even with low timber prices, the logging wouldn’t add to the national debt because funding for the work could be pulled from other pools of money that already are available for this type of work.
Murphy also stressed the transparency of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which had 11 public hearings in Montana and was posted online, with changes, since it was first introduced.
The entire omnibus spending bill can be found online at https://appropriations.senate.gov. Tester’s legislation begins on page 893.
In these final days of the lame duck congressional session, slated to end Friday, Democrats that control the Senate — along with a handful of old-school Republicans — are pushing to wrap more than $1.2 trillion in unfinished budget work into a single appropriations bill. The bill comes to the floor stuffed with thousands of pet projects, known as earmarks, pushed by Democratic and GOP senators alike, despite a pledge by Republicans to give up such projects next year.
Rather than debating a dozen separate appropriations bills, the omnibus spending measure rolls all the spending bills into a single piece of legislation that is likely to be brought to the floor in a way that keeps opponents from trimming it down.
Tester’s bill is a small part of the catchall bill, which is designed to bankroll the operations of every Cabinet agency for the budget year that started Oct. 1, as well as $158 billion to pay for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It also challenges President Barack Obama. One administration-opposed provision would block the Pentagon from transferring Guantanamo Bay prisoners to the United States. Another would provide $450 million for a program to develop a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter despite a veto threat by the administration, which says it’s a waste of money.
Democrats hope to pass the measure by a midnight deadline Saturday. That would give them the latest — and perhaps last — victory over conservatives who contend the annual appropriations bills spend too much money and contain too many pork-barrel projects.
Source: Eve Byron-Independent Record, Helena, Montana
The AP also contributed to the story