The Obama administration said it has several concerns about Sen. Jon Tester's plan to create more wilderness and mandate more logging in Montana's national forests.
Speaking at a Senate hearing, a top Agriculture Department official on Thursday said Tester's bill would require logging levels in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest that are "not reasonable."
Agriculture Undersecretary Harris Sherman, who oversees the Forest Service, said he was concerned that the bill's cost and mandates could create a harmful precedent for other national forests.
Sherman urged Tester, a first-term Democrat, to "alter or remove highly site-specific requirements" for logging and other forest-thinning projects that are "likely unachievable and perhaps unsustainable."
Tester's bill would add 600,000 acres of new wilderness and set aside specific areas for recreation, trails and logging.
Tester said his plan would break through years of gridlock over logging by mandating Forest Service action. The bill would require logging of about 7,000 acres a year in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge forest _ seven times the current annual average.
"The levels of mechanical treatment called for in the bill far exceed historic treatment levels on these forests, and would require an enormous shift in resources (away) from other forests in Montana and other states to accomplish," Sherman testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Despite his testimony, Sherman said the Obama administration neither opposes nor supports the bill as proposed. "We're going to work with Sen. Tester to see if we get these (concerns) resolved," he told reporters.
Matthew Koehler, executive director of the WildWest Institute, a Missoula-based conservation group, opposed the bill, saying its "primary purpose is promotion of commercial logging."
The amount of logging the bill would require is higher than in any previous year on the Beaverhead and Deerlodge forests except 1971, when 7,013 acres were logged, Koehler said.
Koehler called the logging mandates unprecedented, adding that "the very notion that the U.S. Congress should legislate logging levels on national forests is antithetical" to federal law and good forestry.
Tester said the acreage figure was derived from the Forest Service's own management plan for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge forest, adding that 1.9 million acres of the forest are designated for timber harvest.
The bill, known as the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, was written with input from loggers, conservationists, hunters, ranchers, anglers and motorized users, Tester said.
The bill creates jobs by requiring at least 100,000 acres of logging over 10 years in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai national forests, improves forest health, creates new permanent recreation areas, and safeguards some of Montana's best fishing and hunting habitat, Tester said.
Ignoring the challenges facing Montana's forests "is not an option," he said. "We address them head on."
The bill was not created overnight, Tester said, and people's concerns about it won't be fixed overnight either. Tester hopes for a committee vote next year, which would send the bill to the full Senate.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Sen. Max Baucus, both Democrats, support the bill, which they say will create good jobs with more logging.
The bill is S. 1470.