You may heard this past week that Senator Tester falsely claimed in an interview with Montana Public radio that “every logging sale” in Montana is under litigation.
Let me be clear: Tester was wrong, and should be held accountable for his error, something the first wave of news stories did. It’s important for the media to hold politicians accountable for their remarks, although I find it troubling that some politicians in Montana can routinely lie without censure simply because they’re not seen as honest in the first place. That being said, Tester did what he needed to do: acknowledged his error and apologized for it.
The response, however, has been hyperbolic and not entirely intellectually honest.
Writing from his perch in the Missoulian, George Ochenski compared Tester’s statement to Adolf Hitler’s “Big Lie,” a comparison so specious as to defy analysis—and, apparently, standards for editing and judgment.
Over at the Great Falls Tribune, John Adams once again gave a platform from which environmentalist Matt Koehler could launch another serious of attacks on Tester, without mentioning that Koehler has spent years in an almost-obsessive crusade against Senator Tester, a copy-paste crusade that has often put the interests of protecting Montana wild spaces at a level well below that of attacking the Senator. In his full-paragraph access to the Tribune, Koehler repeated the same litany of complaints he posts non-stop online about Senator Tester, without any context or analysis of his remarks. That missing context provides the fringe environmentalist groups Koehler represents the opportunity to misrepresent the reality of litigation today. In other online sources, Koehler even went as far as to suggest that Senator Tester was responsible for a climate of violence against environmental activists, an incredibly opportunistic and unreasonable claim.
If we’re going to talk about being honest here, those opposed to Senator Tester probably need to offer a little more truth in their analyses. The fact is that litigation is a critical part of the wilderness dilemma in Montana, because, combined with the housing crash and international competition, litigation has made timber harvest much more challenging. For environmental fringe groups to pretend to be outraged by the notion that litigation delays timber development ignores the reality that litigation—and the threat of litigation—have absolutely stifled development. Ask US Forest Service Deputy Chief Jim Hubbard:
“In your part of the country—south-central Montana in particular— a huge role. It has virtually shut things down on the National Forest, and so environmental clearance there, collaborative or not, has been difficult.”
The Missoulian’s Rob Chaney also reported that the litigation web is so complex that it’s difficult to measure its impact on forest harvest:
“There’s nothing in the cut-and-sold reports about lawsuits – it’s just about timber sales,” said Todd Morgan of the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. “And that doesn’t get at this spider web of connectivity, where one project gets litigated and it has an impact on lots of other projects. What they’re measured by is not always really clear.”
From the Flathead Beacon:
The persistent litigation of timber sales, which can stall a project for three to five years, has both timber executives and forest managers concerned. “That’s a huge concern for us as an agency,” said Rob Carlin, planning staff officer for the Flathead National Forest. “Our mission is to manage vegetation in a variety of ways. If we lose the biggest tool to do that, and the biggest tool is timber harvest, we don’t have other tools to treat the forests and vegetation except fire.”
And a study published in the Journal of the Society of American Foresters does argue that litigation plays a major role in reducing timber harvest volume:
“The Northern Region has experienced a relatively high level of litigation,” said Forest Service spokeswoman Elizabeth Slown. “From 2008 through 2013, the region had more than 70 projects litigated. In recent years, litigation has encumbered as much as 40 to 54 percent of the region’s planned timber harvest volume.”
If we want to talk about propaganda techniques, it’s hard to overlook some members of the environmental movement using Tester’s misstatement to mask the fact that they do use litigation to delay or block timber sales across the state. Of course they do. They even tout their success in blocking timber harvest through the courts.
Tester is never going to satisfy the extreme environmentalist movement. He’s never pretended to be in their camp and neither are the vast majority of Montanans who do want a compromise solution. Back in 2014, Tester told the Flathead Beacon:
Now, for those folks who don’t want any trees cut, they’re probably not going to be too happy with that. But the truth is, that isn’t a realistic outcome, and it’s not a good strategy for managing Montana’s forests. A lot of the folks who are opposed to this don’t want anything to happen, they are perfectly happy with obstructionism and that’s not how you move a country forward. That’s not how you do what’s right for Montana.”
So the real truth? Montana, for all its natural splendor, is a state that has always struggled with the balance between environmental protection and resource extraction—and is a state with thousands of people who depend on forestry jobs. That our Senator works to balance those interests is not only a reflection of his sound policy-making, but a reflection of the fact that he does need to represent all of the people of Montana. And he’s managed to do that while achieving an 86% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters. Steve Daines, on the other hand? 2%.
And let’s not lose sight of what Senator Tester has accomplished.
I’m reminded again of the piece by the Montana Wilderness Association’s John Gatchell and Cameron Sapp, who argue that it’s precisely because Senator Tester is willing to compromise that 650,000 acres in Montana are now protected:
The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act was included in an omnibus package of 70 public land bills that was attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, a package that also included the North Fork Watershed Protection Act. Together, these two bills permanently protect more than 650,000 acres of public land in the Crown of the Continent, one of the most magnificent ecosystems on Earth.
While environmentalist groups on the political fringes excel at getting press attention, Senator Tester and the mainstream environmental groups they marginalize excel at protecting Montana wild spaces, despite operating in a political climate that is far more hostile than during the environmental heyday of the 1960s and 1970s.
Am I telling progressives who want better protection of Montana’s wildernesses not to be critical of Senator Tester? Certainly not. Our public officials need to be held accountable—and should be expected to apologize for misstatements.
But those who, whether driven by personal animus, pervasive online presence that rivals South Korean gamers, inflexible ideology or just plain opportunism, seem to obsess over attacking Senator Tester have to realize at some level that they are merely useful idiots for the real threat to Montana wilderness. We’re already seeing conservative blogs and “media” outlets in Montana—most of whom want far more timber sales than Tester would ever support—using the story about his misstatement against him. Are those interested in protecting Montana’s wild spaces really better served attacking Senator Tester so that we can elect a reactionary like Ryan Zinke to the Senate? Those in the environmental movement who are so critical of Senator Tester would do well to consider the alternatives their overheated rhetoric might help create.
Tester was wrong in his facts this time, but he’s far more often right for the people of Montana. His work to develop compromise wilderness legislation and protection is far more important than these poorly conceived comments.