From forest management to the arts, Missoula business community bends Tester’s ear

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, meets with local business leaders at the Missoula Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday as part of a round-table discussion. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Local business leaders joined Sen. Jon Tester in a roundtable talk at the Missoula Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday to discuss a range of issues and seek legislative advice heading into the new year.

From the impacts of the Republican tax bill on local nonprofits to timber management in western Montana, business owners shared their concerns with the senator, who remains the only member of the state’s congressional delegation to sit face-to-face with local constituents.

“I have a small business, and a small business in the arts, which is a double whammy,” said Heather Adams, founder of the Downtown Dance Collective. “Arts are often seen as leisure by government, which they’re not. But every year, we’re just hanging on.”

The question came after a member of the Chamber asked Tester what kept him up at night regarding state and local businesses. Tester said access to capital stood among them, something he sought to fix through legislation introduced last year.

Predictability in government, health care and infrastructure were other issues mentioned by Tester. They were also points on which Adams agreed, saying access to capital and predictability in government were significant issues.

“Some of the things in the new tax plan very well may put businesses like mine, pretty darned close, to being out,” said Adams. “I don’t understand how doubling the deductions won’t hurt nonprofits. It’ll have a serious impact on Missoula. People are going to be less likely to donate.”

Tester suggested a number of popular programs, including those with the National Endowment of the Arts, are no longer safe.

Despite the role a vibrant arts community plays in driving a healthy economy, they could become the target of congressional efforts to reduce the deficit, especially now that the GOP has passed a $1.5 trillion tax plan and is looking for ways to pay for a $1 trillion infrastructure plan.

“What I think is going to happen when we go back, I think there’s going to be an effort to do an infrastructure bill, which probably everybody in this room, including me, would support,” Tester said. “It would include highways and bridges and potentially broadband, and sewer and water systems – solid infrastructure.

“But what I think is going to happen is they’ll be looking for ways to pay for it with other programs, and some of those programs may be programs folks in this room like. We’ve got to be really careful moving forward on what we end up doing here, because we may end up robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Kim Latrielle, president and CEO of the Missoula Chamber, said the local business community has identified forest management as a top priority, one that was punctuated by last summer’s fire season.

Latrielle said this year’s State of Missoula address will focus on fires and forest management and their impacts on the local economy. Who and what constitutes the local business community wasn’t mentioned.

“Some of the things we’re looking at is the importance of not losing any more of the current mills and the stuff we have so we can manage our forests,” said Latrielle. “I’m hearing that predictably and availability of timber is one issue.”

Latrielle said the business community wants a greater voice in how the wildland-urban interface is managed for fires and commercial timber harvests.

“Whoever is making a decision on when to let it burn and what happens in that processes, the business community thinks it needs to be bumped out a little bit and be a bigger discussion,” said Latrielle. “We need to think about what we do and when, so we’re really focused on that.”

Tester suggested the Chamber ask for a meeting with the Region 1 forest supervisor to discuss the issue. He agreed that forest management was an issue and that suitable and sustainable timber harvests needed more predictability.

“We’ve lost a ton of mills and we need to keep them,” Tester said. “I’ve had plenty of fights with the folks that don’t want to cut any trees in the forest. Not everything in what they say is wrong – some of it is absolutely right – but not everything they say is right. We need to find that sweet spot.”

Tester said Congress was moving before last year’s break to permit timber harvests without public input. Whether that push resurfaces remains to be seen, though Tester said it was a dangerous idea.

“That’s not how they were advertising it, but essentially, that’s how it was going to be implemented, and I think that’s very dangerous,” Tester said. “To have people at the table who don’t want to cut any trees is important. But it’s also important to have people at the table who understand that forests need to be managed.”