MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer HELENA
A group of environmentalists and former supporters of Sen. Jon Tester are criticizing his office's decision to keep quiet about legislative plans for a new Montana wilderness area. Critics speaking out about the plan include many who want to see more wilderness themselves but argue the issue is so important that Tester's office should disclose exactly what is being considered. They say the Montana Democrat's proposal is the product of a secretive process open only to well-connected insiders. Meanwhile, groups believed to have a say in negotiations, including the Montana Wilderness Association, hail Tester's work as a major step toward creating Montana's first new wilderness designation since the 1980s. Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy said voters are encouraged to share their views on forest management. "When there's a bill, it will be available for everyone to see at the same time. It will be the beginning of the process, not the end," Murphy said. "Jon has been hearing from and working with Montanans of all stripes for years About these issues." Michael Garrity, director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said he believes Tester isn't making good on a promise to run a transparent office. "I'm frustrated that I haven't been more involved," he said. "I think that they need to talk to all sides rather than a select few." Tester's office has confirmed with The Associated Press that the senator's plan considers the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership area, and smaller proposals in the Seeley Lake area that came from the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project and another in northwestern Montana that came from Three Rivers Challenge. Specifics are not being released, however, and only key stakeholders so far have been allowed to see draft plans. "The senator's office flat out refuses to give out any more information unless you are a selected mill owner or selected environmental group," said Matthew Koehler, executive director of the Missoula-based WildWest Institute. "They are solving it by excluding anyone who disagrees with them." Not everyone is unhappy. Even groups like the Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association, which opposes the trail closures to ATVs and dirt bikes that can come with wilderness designation, are so far looking at Tester's strategy favorably. But past supporters like Paul Richards, who endorsed Tester at a key moment in 2006 after dropping out of the Democratic U.S. Senate primary, say Montanans need to see what is on the table. Richards, who has been a board member of several environmental groups, said developing a plan behind closed doors is wrong. "That's not how we do things here in Montana," said Richards. "This legislation has no grassroots involvement whatsoever, and they are trying to portray this as something grassroots." The critics of the process also say the base plan was cooked up by a self-appointed few and will only protect "rocks and ice" high in the mountains while opening way too much in other areas to logging. They prefer a much more expansive wilderness plan currently in Congress called the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act. The broad bill is opposed by the timber and extraction industries. George Ochenski, a columnist and wilderness advocate, said he's mystified by the secrecy over Tester's wilderness proposal. He had harsh words for the Democrat. "The Bush administration is gone, but the Bush Administration way of doing things continues," he said. "I just want to see this secrecy come to an end."