Montana businessman an 'enigma' on energy, conservation

Posted: Dec 17, 2012

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Montana fisherman

Although he proposed to his wife on a mountaintop and claims to have hiked more wilderness than any other elected official, Montana's Rep.-elect Steve Daines (R) remains a riddle on some of the Treasure State's most vexing natural resource issues.

The Bozeman, Mont., businessman and father of four has never held elected office, and his lopsided win over state Senate Minority Whip Kim Gillan (D) last month was largely overshadowed in the media by tighter races for U.S. Senate and governor.

Daines also did not participate in the Montana Conservation Voters' endorsement process, nor did he attend a candidate forum on energy and environmental issues earlier this year in Bozeman.

While he supports construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and is said to oppose a controversial Republican bill to beef up border security on public lands, Daines has yet to take a position on key bills to designate wilderness, boost timber production and promote recreation on public lands.

And it's unclear how he will vote on future proposals in the Republican-led House to curb federal regulations, though most expect Daines, whose campaign focused on small government, will follow the party line.

"He is certainly an enigma right now with more questions than answers," said Jared White of the Wilderness Society's Bozeman office.

And yet Daines, who declined to be interviewed for this story, next month will represent a statewide district rich in oil and gas, timber, and minerals, as well as stunning national parks, forests and wildlife that support billions of dollars in annual tourism and recreation spending.

Although Daines will rank low in House seniority, his positions on wilderness, off-highway vehicles, timber harvests and oil drilling could have far-reaching impacts in Montana, a state of about 1 million people. He'll be well-positioned to weigh in on all these issues as a member of the House Natural Resources Committee; his appointment to the panel was just announced Friday.

"Montana is called the Treasure State for a reason, and has an abundance of natural energy resources including coal, oil, natural gas, hydro, and wind," Daines says on his campaign website. "I will fight for an all inclusive, and market based energy policy that removes barriers to developing our natural resources in Montana and across America."

Daines, whose campaign was bankrolled by nearly $100,000 from oil and gas interests -- second only to retirees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics -- said he supports Keystone XL and criticizes the federal government for blocking energy projects.

"Daines seems to be understanding of the issues we face out here," said Dave Galt, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association.

In addition to Keystone XL, oil companies are closely watching the Bureau of Land Management's revisions of at least three resource management plans, which will determine where and how oil companies can explore on public lands that dominate much of the state, Galt said.

Oil drilling in Montana has rebounded to levels it last saw in 2006, in large part due to new production in the Bakken region in northeast Montana. On the other hand, coalbed natural gas has plummeted almost to zero, Galt said.

In Congress, Daines will join Montana's Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus, who have backed the state's burgeoning oil industry by supporting construction of Keystone XL while also championing conservation funding and access to public lands.

While Daines is pro-energy, he is also seen as more likely to support bills by Tester and Baucus to designate new wilderness in western Montana and the Rocky Mountain Front, respectively, than his predecessor, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R), who argued such bills would lock up public lands.

Rehberg lost his bid to unseat Tester this fall in a race that some observers saw as a referendum on their views on conservation and energy development.

Tester's bill, the "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act" (S. 268), would designate nearly 700,000 acres of wilderness and require the Forest Service to mechanically harvest 100,000 acres of federal forests over the next 15 years. It is supported by mainstream environmental groups and timber companies, and received qualified support from the Obama administration.

"He's promised to take a look at it and get back to me," said Tester, who met with Daines in late November. "I think he's coming in with an open mind."

Sherm Anderson, owner of Sun Mountain Lumber in Deer Lodge, Mont., who backs the Tester bill and met with Daines before the election, said the incoming freshman appears "very logical, objective and [will] do his homework."

"He's probably more open to looking at issues and creative solutions than those who have been in the war for a long time," he said. "I don't think Daines and Congressman Rehberg are on the same page there."

Marketing the great outdoors

White, of the Wilderness Society, said Daines appears to value the economic benefits of public lands in Montana better than others. For example, when Daines was an executive at RightNow Technologies Inc. in Bozeman, his company began a marketing campaign urging professionals to move to the area to enjoy the mountains, White said.

"They called it '' and were marketing the outdoor amenities -- clean water, mountains, trout fishing," White said. The website was later taken down and now redirects to Oracle, the company that bought RightNow.

Daines, who earned a chemical engineering degree from Montana State University before working for Procter & Gamble Co., said he spent much of his time growing up hiking and backpacking through Montana's Beartooth and Lee Metcalf wilderness areas and across the Spanish Peaks in Colorado, among other areas.

But although the fifth-generation Montanan said he is "passionate about the outdoors and wilderness experiences," his support of Tester's bill could alienate ranchers, miners and off-road vehicle users, a traditionally Republican bloc.

"I want to continue to work on this piece of legislation and make it a piece of legislation that will be palatable to the various institutes across Montana," he told Montana Public Media last month. "We have to balance certainly the need for access for our renewable resources in the timber industry."

Daines has hired Erin Gabrian, a former staffer for Rehberg who handled forestry issues, though backers of Tester's bill said they do not believe that will affect Daines' position on the measure.

Tester's bill appears better positioned than ever for passage after the first-term senator defeated Rehberg, who claimed credit for stripping it from a 2012 omnibus appropriations package that passed Congress last December (E&E Daily, Nov. 13).

In addition, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who hails from a timber-dependent state and is seen as a supporter of place-based forestry bills, will take the gavel of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee from retiring Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who never embraced the mandatory logging provisions in Tester's bill.

Conservationists are also lobbying Daines to support Baucus' bill S. 1774, which would add 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness in Montana while establishing a 208,000-acre conservation area on the Rocky Mountain Front.

Daines has also yet to take a position on a Rehberg-backed bill to allow the Department of Homeland Security greater latitude to secure public lands within 100 miles of the Canadian border, a bill conservationists and sportsmen in the state have opposed as an assault on Montana's backcountry. Tester strongly opposes the measure.

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