Last week, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) told Montana Public Radio that “every logging sale in Montana right now is under litigation—every one of them.” He was speaking in support of Secure Rural Schools funding, which provides payments in lieu of taxes to counties that contain large tracts of federal land and depend heavily on logging. Fortunately, Tester was wrong. Only 14 of 97 timber sales in Montana are currently under litigation, and only four of those have stopped logging. Tester’s office issued a correction the next day, saying that “nearly half of awarded timber volume in fiscal year 2014 is currently under litigation.” That also turned out not to be true.
Tester’s revised statement compares the volume of sales under litigation (69.4 million board feet) to the total volume of timber harvested this year (145.3 million board feet.) That’s a meaningless comparison, since most of the litigated timber was not cut this year. Fact checkers at the Washington Post found that only about 10% of the timber cut in fiscal year 2014 is enjoined by litigation.
Tester’s broad point—that a lot of Montana counties depend heavily on logging and suffer when it stops—is probably true. But he seems to have deployed a series of untrue, misleading or simply inaccurate statements to press that point. From a strict epistemological standpoint, Tester is Just Sayin’ Stuff.
But are such facts really important? The average person probably does not need to know exactly how many board-feet are enjoined at this moment, nor is he likely to remember. As with a Biblical parable, the details of Tester’s remarks are apparently made up, but the larger message is true: rural counties are suffering due to reduced logging.
Except logging does not look all that reduced. Last year saw the US Forest Service Northern Region meet its timber harvest goal for the first time in 14 years. If counties are struggling due to reduced logging, they appear to be struggling less than they have since Bill Clinton was in office.
So what element of Tester’s remarks was, you know, true? The subtext: Tester is sponsoring an SRS bill, because it’s an important issue to the people he represents.
That’s not wrong. Counties with a bunch of federal land in them probably should get more money from the Forest Service, if for no other reason than that rural counties are often poor. And Tester should try to get them as much money as he can, if for no other reason than they are his constituents. But in this case, the senior Senator from Montana has been a poor advocate.
If the facts don’t support his argument—and it appears they do not—Tester should look for a different argument. In the best-case scenario, his attempt to manufacture a contemporary timber crisis will encourage his fellow Senators to make the right decision for the wrong reason. Worst-case scenario, Tester’s evidence does not support his claims because he is wrong.
I assume that typing this sentence on the internet will solve the problem forever: if you have to make up facts to convince people, you might not be right. I don’t know where Tester got his debunked information originally, and when the Post asked his staff for evidence backing the revised statement, they cited “the Forest Service” without offering specific data. That’s the behavior of people who are not used to being fact-checked.
Perhaps it has always been thus, but I submit that one problem in contemporary American politics is the general agreement that you won’t suffer much if you say something inaccurate into a microphone. Tester knows his constituents. He knows they care about SRS funding. He also seems to believe that he can pretty much tell us whatever.