Closing Range

Past, Present, Future Part 6

Weyerhaeuser is selling not only the Cedar Palace in Columbia Falls and its closed mill, but also 13,398 acres in the Upper Whitefish country

Some Beacon readers might remember a series of five columns I wrote last fall about Weyerhaeuser’s future in Montana. With the news that Weyerhaeuser is selling not only the Cedar Palace in Columbia Falls and its closed mill, but also 13,398 acres in the Upper Whitefish country, it’s time for Part 6.

First, the sale of the Columbia Falls mill and office complex confirm what we already knew, that Weyerhaeuser is reducing its Montana footprint. What about the so-called Whitefish Lake Watershed Project? What’s the implication there? Weyerhaeuser’s spokesman declared that the transaction “will create value for the company and the community going forward. It’s the right thing to do.”

Well, he got the first part right, in spades. The other two, I have my doubts.

In general, the underlying lands and timber harvest rights will go to Montana, added to the Coal Creek State Forest and managed as such. Five sections on the south and east will be managed under conditions set by the Bonneville Power Administration and 16 sections under Fish Wildlife and Parks terms. Not part of this deal are the three sections in this block closest to Whitefish, which as premium “amenity” ground are probably going to go to a filthy rich, politically-connected “conservation buyer” who will score some impressive tax breaks.

Now, here’s where it gets juicy. The five BPA sections — 3,180 acres — will cost $11.5 million, or $3,616 per acre. FWP’s Phase 1, which are the sections furthest from town — 7,018 acres — will cost $10 million, or $1,424 per acre. Phase 2, only 3,120 acres closer to civilization, will cost another $10 million, or $3,205 per acre.

Seriously, would you pay that with your money? Well, you won’t have to. Almost all of that price will be paid with “other people’s money” — the federal Forest Legacy Program, federal Habitat Conservation Program, hunter Habitat Montana dollars, and for BPA’s share, BPA ratepayers all over the Northwest.

So, what’s it worth to Weyerhaeuser or anyone else as working forest? They won’t say, of course, but FWP’s Environmental Assessment admits these sections are covered with 30-year-old trees, with the next harvest coming “after 30 to 40 years, 1.7 million feet a year” from then on. This is important. The Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana publishes quarterly reports of stumpage prices, and it’s safe to say that log prices have run around $400 per thousand board feet on average, or 40 cents a foot, for the past 15 years. Multiply that by 1.7 million and that’s $680,000 a year, starting not next year but 30 years from now.

So I ran a Net Present Value calculation at 6 percent for harvests from year 30 to year 50: $1.476 million, or, from 13,398 acres, $110.16 per acre. Yep, I checked, three times. And this pathetic number doesn’t figure in pre-harvest thinning, road work, or any other very substantial costs that normally occur over years 0 to 30.

Even worse, while the FWP part will be run like state forest on the BPA lands, “Any residential, commercial, or industrial uses of the Protected Property is prohibited, including timber harvesting […]” Does that mean those five foothills sections will be left to build up fuels for the next fire on the Big Mountain front? Brilliant.

The bottom line is that Weyerhaeuser is selling lands that are, as timberland, worth no more than $2.5 million today, and will enjoy what the company calls a “premium” just shy of $30 million — simply astounding.

What are the arguments FWP is using to “justify” this ridiculous plan? One is to “preserve important viewsheds” along the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park Loop — part of which is Highway 93 running from Whitefish to Fernie. But guess what? Tourists can’t see any Upper Whitefish lands from this so-called “Top Ten Scenic Drive.”

Another argument: “Since the Upper Whitefish Road is a private road, it could be closed to public use based on the desire of the future landowner.” Cut off public egress over Red Meadow? Really?

Sorry, but this is an extraordinarily negligent use of public funds, and those responsible should be ashamed.