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The great unwinding

Problems continue to plague Tester's wilderness bill



This week's announcement by Montana's lone congressional representative, Republican Denny Rehberg, that he can't support the wilderness and logging legislation introduced by Montana's junior senator, Jon Tester, should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched Rehberg's political career over the last three decades. He has never supported wilderness and, as they say, leopards don't change their spots. What his announcement does do, however, is signal the great unwinding of all the secretly negotiated backroom deals upon which Tester's legislation is founded.

Those with long memories may recall that Rehberg entered the Montana political scene as a 30-year-old state representative from Billings in 1985. Having already cut his teeth as a legislative aide and congressional campaign finance director a few years earlier, suffice it to say his role as a key Republican political operative was both well rehearsed and predictable.

His tenure in the state legislature saw a quick rise for Rehberg and in 1989, he became the obvious successor to Republican heavy-hitter Jack Ramirez, whose smooth style and lawyerly demeanor hid a ruthless drive to achieve Republican political and policy goals.

It was that year, as many will recall, that Montana's senior U.S. senator, John Melcher, was replaced by Conrad Burns, a political novice with the southern twang of his native Missouri, a folksy manner and an ag radio show.

Despite his lack of statewide political experience, Burns narrowly beat Melcher in the '88 elections based on a couple of significant issues. One was the "let it burn" policy for Yellowstone National Park, which had seen about 2 million acres scorched during that long, hot summer. And the other was the Montana Wilderness Bill passed by Congress that designated 1.4 million acres of new wilderness in the state—more than twice the acreage Sen. Tester's bill contains and including none of the more onerous provisions of Tester's bill, such as mandated logging levels or release of currently protected Wilderness Study Areas.

Although Rehberg was not formally in the House Republican leadership at the time, he was very active in campaign issues and Ramirez, his fellow Billings rep, was the House minority leader who would go on to become Conrad Burns' first chief of staff at the end of the '89 session. Like virtually all Republicans, Rehberg and Ramirez had no use whatsoever for Melcher's wilderness bill and succeeded in getting then-President Ronald Reagan to kill the measure by pocket-vetoing it, which many say significantly influenced the Melcher-Burns race and led to Burns' victory.

Zipping ahead 20 years, we're once again treated to now-Rep. Denny Rehberg entering the steamy political atmosphere surrounding designation of new Montana wilderness. And once again, anyone that expects Rehberg to support new wilderness is likely to be disappointed.

After Tester introduced his wilderness and logging bill, Rehberg went statewide to hold some 22 meetings in the areas that would be most affected by the new wilderness designations. Not surprisingly, the feedback he received centered on the critical component of Tester's bill most raised by opponents—that the wilderness designation would take place upon passage of the legislation, but the mandated logging levels (70,000 acres over 10 years) would perhaps never take place since the public's right to legally challenge actions on national forests would remain intact. "If you don't fix the appeals process, you haven't fixed the process," Rehberg told reporters. "I don't think this bill accomplishes what it's intended to accomplish and I'm for resolution of this issue."

Ah yes, "resolution" of the wilderness issue is just what Conrad Burns promised Montanans after the veto of Melcher's bill and, as most will recall, he never went on to support a single acre of new wilderness in his 18 years in the Senate. Until Rehberg introduces his own version of a Montana wilderness bill, which is highly unlikely, those hoping he will bring resolution to the issue are probably living in fantasy land.

More to the point, Tester's bill already garnered significant and perhaps fatal criticism from Agriculture Undersecretary Harris Sherman at its Senate hearing in December. According to Sherman, the bill's mandates for logging, the funding required, and localizing decisions on national forest lands that belong to all Americans, would "Balkanize" the national forest system and lead to fund-shifting that make the mandates "likely unachievable and perhaps unsustainable."

And already, the wilderness acreage has been reduced through Tester's changes to the bill at the behest of other special interests. For instance, the Butte Highlands were originally designated wilderness. But a single company in Butte asked Tester to allow military landings in wilderness—an unheard of provision—and knowing that such a precedent would never pass congressional muster, Tester simply removed the wilderness designation for the Highlands. Similar reductions of wilderness, bifurcating wilderness with motorized and mountain bike routes, and allowing motorized sheep herding have changed the original "partnership" agreement in only one direction—less wilderness.

The moral of the story—and it's applicable to many more policy issues than Tester's bill—is the fallacy of using "collaboration" to put such measures together. As even Rehberg has pointed out, "collaboration" is simply an agreement among a limited number of participants, which is significantly different than widespread consensus. The backroom deal-cutters believed that once they decided for the rest of us what the boundaries and provisions would be, they would remain intact.

That, however, reveals an unbelievable amount of naiveté as to how the legislative process actually works. Once introduced, a bill's sponsor has no control over what the sub-committee, committee or full Senate and House will do to the measure. In fact, entire bills have been completely rewritten through amendment whether the sponsor agreed with it or not.

Rehberg's demands to "fix" the appeals process is just the start. Add to it the slow but steady disintegration of the wilderness acreage and it should be apparent that the great unwinding of Tester's bill has definitely begun, but is far from over.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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