Sending a new congressman off to Washington, D.C., is somewhat like sending a child off to school: You hope he doesn’t fall in with the wrong crowd.
Unfortunately, when it comes to national forests, it seems Rep. Steve Daines has fallen in with the wrong crowd: the crowd that puts politics before people and puts political gain ahead of making progress on the ground.
For some inexplicable reason, Rep. Daines has moved to quash a series of Montana-made pilot projects, aimed at improving national forest management. These pilot projects are the result of thousands of hours invested by folks from timber, hunters and anglers, wilderness advocates and others.
As a private citizen and retired Forest Service ranger, I’ve invested long hours in these kinds of efforts for two main reasons. First, they are the best path forward to eventually break the logjam and, second, they are the right thing to do.
That’s why I was frustrated to see Rep. Steve Daines’ name on a letter to the speaker of the House. Daines and some of his colleagues asked the speaker to quash any state-by-state bills aimed at addressing the gridlock on our national forests. Instead, they demand a sweeping, national fix.
Montanans share a deep affection for our national forests. These lands support jobs, both in timber and recreation-based industries. They are the source of our clean water and wildlife habitat and our outdoor way of life.
It’s no secret that Montanans are frustrated with how our national forests are managed. We see the beetle-killed trees. We smell the smoky skies. We see poorly designed roads bleeding sediment into our streams. We know the Forest Service is capable of doing a better job.
Montanans like me have put long hours into local-collaborative efforts aimed at breaking deadlock on our national forests. These collaborative projects work best when they include people from all walks of life, including folks from timber, recreation and conservation.
Sen. Jon Tester took ownership of these projects and put them in a single bill. The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act takes three of these locally driven pilot projects and simply asks Congress to support them.
One is from the Kootenai National Forest, one from the Lolo and one from the Beaverhead-Deerlodge. Poll after poll shows Montanans overwhelmingly support the bill.
When Montanans get together, they can get things done. After all, they know the ground and have a vested interest in seeing it well managed.
Then there is Washington, D.C. Inside the Beltway, ideologically driven factions design their own top-down visions for national forests. On one hand, eastern representatives want massive, multi-state wilderness bills. On the other, industry lobbyists push massive changes, swapping out “multiple use” for multi-million acre “resource zones.” All with no input, not even a meeting, in Montana.
Montanans know that top-down mandates don’t work.
Steve Daines speaks of putting Montana first and making sure Montana’s voice is heard in solving issue for Montana. But by putting his name on that obstructionist letter, the congressman fails to live up to his campaign promises.
The letter was crafted by and signed by representatives commonly associated with the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. Centrist Republicans, like Idaho’s Rep. Mike Simpson, did not sign it. Small wonder, since Rep. Simpson has supported other local collaborative projects in Idaho.
Throughout his first term in office, Rep. Daines has been coy about the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. The letter appears to be his first overt action to kill it.
Montanans deserve better than political gamesmanship. If Daines has problems with Sen. Tester’s bill, he should say what they are. After all, it’s not written in stone and all parties to the bill have proven they are willing to listen and compromise.
There is still time for Daines to clarify his position and support local pilot projects. He should rethink his recent letter and do what’s right for Montana.
Mark Petroni is a retired district ranger and writes from West Yellowstone.