Sen. Jon Tester tried to reach out to Montanans regarding Congressional issues affecting public lands and conservation in Montana. But some callers took the senator to task on unrelated issues.
Tester started off the Wednesday evening call going over the main issues he wanted to address: preserving public land, reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, improving forest management by removing wildfire suppression costs from the Forest Service budget and the Congressional brinksmanship related to raising the federal debt ceiling.
But he also fielded questions on everything from the Iran nuclear agreement and Keystone pipeline to why he supports AmeriCorps and the Montana Conservation Corps.
With rifle season starting this weekend, Tester said most Montanans depend on federal public land to be able to hunt and fish. Because of that, recreation in Montana is a $6 billion industry and supports more than 60,000 jobs.
One of the funds that helped create the public land, state and city parks and river access that bolsters the recreation economy is the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Republicans allowed to expire in September after 50 years.
The $900 million fund does not come from taxpayers but instead comes from offshore oil leases. It goes to buy recreational opportunity for Americans in all 50 states, so the lack of Congressional support makes little sense.
Tester told a caller named Derrick that the LWCF wasn’t dead, but breathing life back into it would be a two-step process: reauthorization and funding the full $900 million. The LWCF received full funding in only two years of its lifetime.
“The likelihood of it getting reauthorized is reasonably good. Getting full funding is going to be a challenge. So we need folks to push at the local level,” Tester said. “It’s about wildlife conservation and habitat, but it’s also about just quality of life. We need to talk about its advantages. Just know that I am very committed.”
Caller JW Westman agreed that the LWCF was important but was worried that the only way the LWCF could be reauthorized was as a rider on a less beneficial bill.
“I don’t want to see the LWCF, something good, attached to what I perceive is something being really bad, that is lifting the crude oil export ban. I think that’s a zero sum game,” Westman said.
Tester said he’d prefer to see the LWCF get a “straight-up reauthorization” but he wasn’t opposed to putting the LWCF on other bills as an amendment.
Discussing the funding of public land prompted caller Jim Johnson of Troy to ask Tester why he wasn’t working on returning federal public lands to the state. Johnson claimed that federal agencies weren’t doing a good job, the state could do better and the state Enabling Acts required federal land to be signed over to the states.
While some states’-rights advocates use that last argument, Constitutional lawyers have repeatedly stated that “state enabling acts offer little support for the idea that the United States has a ‘duty to dispose’ of its public land.”
That’s partly why on Wednesday, GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush called for more state input in federal land-use but made no mention of state land transfers.
Having been a state legislator for eight years, Tester said that Montana did not have a large enough budget to be able to take over and manage the federal lands that make up two-thirds of the state.
“If they couldn’t (balance the budget), their only option would be to sell them. And they’d get good money out of them, but I doubt many people in Montana would be able to buy them and then those hunting and fishing opportunities would be gone,” Tester said.
Related to budgets, Tester called upon Congress to do the right thing and vote to raise the U.S. debt ceiling by the end of October.
The debt ceiling doesn’t increase the budget deficit – Congress already weighed in on the deficit when it approved the 2016 budget. And the deficit has been cut by two-thirds over the past six years.
The debt ceiling is essentially a limit on how much money the government can borrow from the treasury to pay off the nation’s debt.
“This is about keeping our word that we’ll pay past debts as they come due,” Tester said. “We need to reduce the deficit. And then we need to get to work making investments in the things that grow our economy like infrastructure, education, research and development and of course our public lands.”
Finally, Tester said Congress needed to pass a forest management plan that has three things: increased timber harvest, increased recreation and preservation of lands for future generations.
Caller Marchet Robinson of Libby was all for increased timber harvest, especially on the Kootenai National Forest. She said she wanted environmental groups held accountable for making forests unhealthy by holding up timber sales.
Another caller, Michael, wanted to see collaborative forest projects get more traction but wondered if they violated environmental laws.
Finally, a couple callers said they knew Forest Service employees were dedicated but were stretched too thin to do a good job. One caller suggested that the Forest Service might do better as its own agency rather than being part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Tester said more timber harvest needs to occur, but it must be done responsibly. Collaborative projects need to move forward, but the process shouldn’t bypass Forest Service regulations or the public’s right to have input into public land management.
One thing that would help the agency, Tester said, is putting wildfire costs under a different agency such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“It’s kind of a vicious circle: if they’re paying for wildfires, they can’t do management; if they can’t do management, it creates more possibility of wildfires. They got a fire budget, and once it runs out, they got to start robbing other management funds. More than half of the budget goes to fighting fires,” Tester said. “That’s why I sponsored the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. It keeps the resources for management in those management pots.”