Tester says he supports firefighting funding bill

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The Sprague Fire burns in Glacier National park Thursday evening. (Chris Peterson photo)

Montana Sen. Jon Tester said last week that he supports a bill that would fund future firefighting efforts across the U.S., rather than drain the Forest Service budget.

About half of the Forest Service budget is used in many years to fight fires, leaving things like trails and planning for timber management waiting in the wings.

Senate Bill 1842 authorizes disaster funding for wildfires on an annual basis, based on a sliding scale that Congress can add to if need be during a severe fire year.

This fiscal year, for example, the bill would authorize $1.4 billion for fire fighting nationwide. By 2026, the bill would authorize nearly $2.7 billion to fight wildfires.

Unlike previous measures, this bill has bipartisan support.

“We’ve got to get this doggone bill passed,” Tester said in a conference call with reporters last week.

Montana alone saw more than 1 million acres burn in wildfires this summer and California had thousands of homes destroyed by fires.

Tester, a Democrat, said it was a good measure.

“This is a good bill,” he said. “It doesn’t have a lot of junk in it.”

Previous bills have included more controversial aspects. A bill supported by Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte earlier this year included allowing large salvage and timber sales — 10,000 acres for timber sales — 30,000 acres for salvage sales — without the standard environmental reviews.

The idea behind Gianforte’s measure was to accelerate certain timber sales, the theory being that thinned woods are less likely to burn catastrophically.

Tester also touched on several other topics during the conference call.

• He said he was encouraged by the SmartLam expansion in Columbia Falls and now the city can apply for a federal Economic Development Administration grant that would assist the city in providing better infrastructure to the site if need be. SmartLam will not take up the entire industrial park with its operation and the hope is to draw more businesses to it.

• On the subject of mass shootings, Tester said he supported the Second Amendment, but he also said the “gun show loophole” which allows guns to be bought and sold at shows without the usual background checks, should be closed.

“Closing the gun show loophole is pretty common sense,” he said.

Having said that, he noted the Las Vegas shooter had no criminal history prior to killing more than 50 people at a crowded country music concert earlier this month.

• He opposed the tax measures being supported by the Republican Congress.

“It overwhelmingly helps the rich,” he said. “Not enough goes to the middle.”

• On healthcare, he was encouraged by a bi-partisan bill by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) The legislation seeks to stabilize health insurance markets by extending for two years government subsidy payments that insurance companies use to lower costs for poorer customers.

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