MISSOULA – The U.S. Forest Service must include Montanans in the decision making as the agency negotiates with Plum Creek Timber Co. about use of federal land, talks that could enhance company prospects in real estate development, says Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
Some county commissioners in Montana have told Tester they fear that Plum Creek-Forest Service talks about access to federal land ultimately will support sale of company timberlands for use in housing developments. Subdividing timberlands can increase the costs counties incur to provide services in far-flung neighborhoods.
The Forest Service insists the private negotiations have served only to “clarify” decades-old road easements, and create no new access rights.
Tester last week wrote Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, and requested negotiations cease until representatives of Montana communities are included. Rey told the Missoulian that he has read the letter and will respond, but he added that counties should look into zoning as a way to prevent land uses they don’t want.
Missoula County’s three commissioners recently signed a letter to Tester, saying they had learned of talks that occurred between Plum Creek and the Forest Service and were aimed at changing long-standing road easements.
Since the 1960s, the Forest Service and owners of property next to the agency’s land have entered agreements that spell out obligations surrounding the shared use and maintenance of forest roads that crisscross property lines. In the minds of some, those agreements allow limited access to haul logs, but not to develop real estate.
In the case of Plum Creek, Rey said, negotiations began in 2006 in an effort to determine whether existing forest road easements “permitted the use of the roads for accessing residential and commercial development.” The Forest Service wanted to talk to Plum Creek because as the company moves to sell its lands, the federal agency desires assurance that future landowners will uphold road maintenance requirements long on the books, Rey said.
“The easements were not clear, so we got together and made them clear,” Plum Creek spokeswoman Kathy Budinick said.
Tester’s staff has described the negotiations as a “secret, closed-door plan,” but Budinick bristled at the notion of closed meetings. Although the public was not included, decisions were reviewed by officials up and down the federal chain of command, she said. “Everyone who needed to be involved was involved,” she said.
Rey said the negotiations do not expand Plum Creek’s rights, but rather confirm its existing right to access for the subdivision, sale and development of lands. Public involvement was not required because “this is just an update to an existing bilateral agreement,” he said.
Missoula County commissioners wrote Tester that “the significance of Plum Creek’s ownership in Montana (of) over 1.2 million acres and the development that could happen on those lands in concert with Forest Service assistance reinforces the need for an open public process with local government at the table.”
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