DEER LODGE - Rep. Denny Rehberg said he's not trying to "fix" Sen. Jon Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, but he's certainly looking at what's under the hood.
"I'm not a logger, and I'm being asked to legislate a logging standard," Rehberg told about 125 people at a listening session in the Deer Lodge Community Center on Friday.
"If you get 670,000 acres of wilderness and no logging, you'd be mad at me. I need to know where's the assurance of the promise that that's going to occur."
The packed room listened politely to strong viewpoints both for and against Tester's S. 1470 legislation, with the majority of speakers asking Rehberg to support the bill despite its imperfections. Friday was the last of a five-day sweep through Butte, Dillon, Philipsburg and Ennis where Rehberg said he'd held 21 meetings.
Tester's bill bundles a package of wilderness designations, new recreation areas and forest management contracts. It had its first hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests on Dec. 17. While Montana senior Sen. Max Baucus supports the measure, Rehberg has not announced his position.
"In defense of Jon's bill, I think he's trying to find compromise," Rehberg said. "He got loggers and environmentalists sitting down at the table together, and that's a good thing. But I'm sensing there's more collaboration in this bill than consensus."
Sawmill worker Mark Hathaway said waiting for consensus left the Forest Service in limbo.
"It seems we want to log everything and they want to make everything wilderness," Hathaway said. "But the people who make those arguments don't want to give anything up. If something doesn't happen, I'm going to be out of a job. This is not a perfect bill, but it's a good balance and it keeps me in a job. If the argument keeps me out of a job, I can guarantee you'll lose my vote."
Rehberg agreed with Blackfoot Challenge lands director Hank Goetz that the portion brokered by the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship project was well done and that he could support its wilderness and logging compromise in the Seeley Lake/Ovando area "as is."
But he added that he wasn't as confident about the bill's other two pieces in the Libby area and on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.
Several opponents argued that the new wilderness designations would turn the mountains into sanctuaries for tree-killing beetles and game-eating wolves that would hurt land management in more accessible areas. There were also objections to the permanent nature of wilderness designations while the logging projects were limited to a 10-year timeframe.
Proponents said the bill would go a long way toward sorting out Montana's wilderness study areas, which have been unsettled since President Ronald Reagan vet state's last wilderness bill in 1986. State Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional supervisor Mack Long said the bill would benefit fish and wildlife and improve the landscape.
This week's tour concentrated on communities around the latter area. Rehberg said he would try to schedule a meeting in the Libby area for late next week.
Deer Lodge businessman Bob Toole asked Rehberg to look beyond Republican and Democratic political posturing and get something done in the forests.
"I feel this bill as presented does that," Toole said. "We need a bill because we don't need another 25 years without anything."