Tester’s correction on timber litigation also turns out to be wrong

Sen. John Tester stands before one of three backdrops available to Montana politicians (flag, snowmobile)

Sen. Jon Tester stands before one of three backdrops available to politicians in Montana (flag, snowmobile.)

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.

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  1. Well done. Still delightful even when I don’t spit any food out. I would be curious to hear your thoughts on PolitiFact and the surge in fact checking in politics. Is this a solution to your conclusion?

  2. Hi Dan, Thanks for an informative article and shinning some more (much needed) light on this whole situation.

    Have you read the extremely bizarre Lee Newspaper State Bureau article about the Washington Post Fact-Checker story? http://bit.ly/1E03DMd

    It’s simply amazing to me that the State Bureau article actually never presents the simple USFS timber sale facts dug up by the Washington Post’s fact-checker and that you have reprinted here. How is that even possible?

    Here are the facts, as presented in the Washington Post, much of which you also cover in your article above: http://wapo.st/18kUG33

    Last week Senator Tester told MT Public Radio listeners: “Unfortunately, every logging sale in Montana right now is under litigation. Every one of them.” (Source: http://bit.ly/1vBRZUP)

    However, once the Washington Post’s Fact-Checker dug into the actual numbers it was revealed that there are currently 97 US Forest Service timber sales in Montana under contract to be logged, and just 14 of those timber sales have active litigation. However, some of those timber sales under litigation are actually being actively logged, so the Fact-Checker discovered that, in truth, right now only 4 timber sales out of 97 cannot be logged because of litigation.

    Obviously, these numbers are a far cry from Senator Tester’s original statement that supposedly, “every logging sale in Montana right now is under litigation. Every one of them.”

    Again, how is it even possible that these basic timber sale numbers from the Washington Post’s Fact-Checker article aren’t presented in the lee Newspaper State Bureau article, which is supposedly about the Washington Post’s fact-check of Senator Tester?

    Here’s what the Washington Post’s final Pinocchio Test of Senator Tester stated: “Given that Tester is the senior senator from Montana, his comments on litigation in Montana’s national forests are embarrassingly wrong. In both statements, he was wildly off the mark. He needs to brush up on his facts — and his math — before he opines again on the subject. Four Pinocchios (reserved only for whoppers)”

    Again, I’d encourage people to read the actual Washington Post article so they can see the facts for themselves. http://wapo.st/18kUG33

    As you point out Dan, this is an important issue for Montana, and the country. Right now Senator Tester and Senator Daines are going around the state spreading entirely false information about public lands management and the US Forest Service’s timber sale program. As anyone can clearly read in the Washington Post article, only 4 out of 97 current timber sales on USFS land in Montana are halted by litigation.

    Furthermore, Tester, Daines and some in the Montana news media seem to have forgotten that right now the Forest Service in Montana has the authority to conduct an unlimited number of fast-track, streamlined logging projects on 5 million acres under the Farm Bill. Just how big is 5 million acres? That’s the equivalent of 5 Glacier National Parks! Nationally, the Forest Service is authorized to log 46 million acres under the Farm Bill. All of this Farm Bill logging would be ‘categorically excluded from the requirements of NEPA.’

    The problem is that Congress never funded the Forest Service to plan any of these new Farm Bill timber sales. So with 5 million acres of National Forests in Montana available TODAY for fast-track logging – and only 4 out of 97 current USFS timber sales in MT halted by litigation – Tester and Daines want the public to believe that timber sale lawsuits are the problem? Give me a break!

    If Tester and Daines were truly serious about getting more logging done on National Forests they should increase the Forest Service’s funding to do so and see what happens. Of course, in the meantime, the Forest Service has a $10 billion road maintenance backlog nationally, including a $670 Million maintenance backlog in Montana, but Senator Tester and Daines never provide anywhere close to the funding required to deal with it. And honestly, they never even talk about all the rural jobs that could be created dealing with this restoration backlog. Nope, they’d rather ignore their own responsibility and toss out lies or wild misinformation in what can only be viewed as a clear attempt to gut our nation’s environmental laws further and reduce public participation in public lands management.

    Finally, speaking of lawsuits, when’s the last time you read about all the current lawsuits and official objections against the US Forest Service from the ranchers, oil, gas, coal industries, outfitters/guides, cabin lease holders, etc. If Senator Tester and Daines want to claim lawsuits are a big problem for the US Forest Service let’s have a full and public view of all of these lawsuits as well.


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