Sen. Jon Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act has been batted around like a low-hanging bear bag. Some praise the bill for its cooperative spirit, while others bemoan their exclusion from Tester's salon. The large remainder—ourselves included—haven't yet made up their minds.
Based on three recent examples of collaborative conservation—the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership, the Blackfoot Challenge and the Three Rivers Challenge—the bill attempts to roll the interests of loggers, recreationists and wilderness advocates into one. And it's pretty easy to discern which players are behind the bill's provisions. We can safely assume, for example, that the Kootenai Ridge Riders ATV Club probably pushed for the Forest Service to study potential ATV routes in the Three Rivers District of the Kootenai National Forest.
But when we happened upon the language allowing limited aircraft landings for military training in the Highlands, a portion of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest slated for wilderness designation, we couldn't even venture a guess as to who might have lobbied for it. Last time we checked, the U.S. Military was not a member of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership.
Turns out that a military contractor that trains soldiers in mountain warfare pulled the strings. Aaron Murphy, a Tester spokesperson, tells us that Peak Enterprises, a private company in Butte, has an agreement in place that allows them to use the Highlands three to four times per year. Basically, a helicopter flies in, drops off the troops on a mountaintop and picks them up a few days later on a different peak. The Highlands, Murphy says, resemble the mountains of Afghanistan and allow troops to get an idea of the topography they'll face in Asia. Tester's bill honors that existing agreement, a direct result of the senator's effort to listen to the concerns of all kinds of Montanans, Murphy says.
Eight helicopter flights per year shouldn't compromise the wilderness area's ecology. Allison Stewart, national press officer for the Forest Service, notes that similar exceptions exist in other wilderness areas throughout the country. And we're glad Tester sought input from stakeholders outside the three partnerships.
But we're still scratching our heads. The 1964 Wilderness Act prohibits all motorized and mechanized transport. That even includes mountain bikes. We're all for national security, and well-trained troops are much more likely to return home than poorly trained troops. But in the fourth largest state in the country by area, and one of the smallest by population, we're pretty sure the military can find other nearby stand-ins for the Hindu Kush. Let's leave wilderness the way the Wilderness Act meant it: "untrammeled" by man.