Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey said he will visit Montana in the coming weeks to answer questions about closed-door talks between the U.S. Forest Service and Plum Creek Timber Co.
Rey said the talks merely “clarified” shared forest-road easements that date back several decades.
But critics – including many Montana county commissioners – worry the easement negotiations could lead to extensive real estate sales in what is now working timberland.
“I would like to be out there within the month,” Rey said Wednesday, adding that his goal is to “answer questions, talk through the issues and provide information.”
He’ll meet with state land managers, he said, as well as with interested county officials, to explain the results of the agency’s talks with Plum Creek.
Plum Creek is the country’s largest private landowner, with 8 million acres nationwide and 1.2 million acres in Montana. Some 2 million of those acres – with value estimated at $5.7 billion – are targeted for sale in coming years, although the company will not say which acres those are.
Earlier this month, Missoula County commissioners wrote to Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., saying they had heard of the road-easement negotiations and were worried the talks might lead to increased subdivisions without consulting with local governing bodies.
That raised concerns, because remote subdivisions in forested areas can lead to higher taxpayer expense for delivering public services and fighting wildfires.
Rey said the Forest Service wanted to make sure that the old road-maintenance agreements would be honored by new landowners as Plum Creek sells its properties. And the company wanted to be clear what road easement rights it held. Rey said the talks resulted in no real changes, so did not demand public participation.
Tester, in response to the Missoula County commissioners’ letter, wrote a letter to Rey asking that all negotiations end until the public could be involved.
That the parties negotiated so long to make no changes, Tester said, “implies it’s a little more complicated than Mr. Rey’s trying to make it appear.”
Rey said the time and place for the discussion hasn’t been set.