BILLINGS – The federal government has limited control over a timber company’s plans to develop its vast Montana land holdings, U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey said Monday.
As the Plum Creek Timber Co. moves to be a bigger player in the real estate industry, the company is negotiating with the federal government to renew approximately 200 road easements through publicly owned forests in Montana.
Commissioners from several western Montana counties want new restrictions on those easements that would address increased future demand for firefighting, road maintenance and other public services.
But following a meeting with state and local officials on Monday, Rey said federal law guarantees Plum Creek access through U.S. Forest Service land.
The company owns approximately 1.2 million acres in Montana and 8 million nationwide. Approximately 2 million acres are targeted for sale in coming years — although the company has not revealed where those are.
“Plum Creek can develop these lands whether or not we do anything,” Rey said in an interview with The Associated Press. “There are a lot of people nervous about what Plum Creek’s intentions are, and they appear to believe the federal government ought to be the private land regulator in a situation where I believe we do not have the authority to do so.”
He added that state and local governments should strengthen their zoning laws if they want a greater say in future development.
A Missoula attorney who represents other western Montana landowners in the area said he intends to mount a legal challenge if Rey signs off on the easement renewals.
Attorney Jack Tuholske said the federal government was violating the National Environmental Policy Act by not conducting a thorough environmental review as part of its easement negotiations.
“This document is a change from the status quo,” he said of a tentative agreement between the government and Plum Creek. “The Forest Service’s granting of this amended easement allows Plum Creek to develop land that at least right now it doesn’t think it can develop.”
Missoula County Commissioner Bill Carey said the county’s lawyers also believe it would be illegal for the Forest Service to approve the easements without further analysis.
Carey said Rey’s suggestion to use zoning to address the issue failed to recognize limitations on property laws in Montana. State law says that because Plum Creek owns 58 percent of the land in Missoula County, the company can reject any zoning restrictions the commission might hope to impose, Carey said.
Plum Creek’s Jerry Sorensen minimized the scope of the company’s development plans, saying it had developed only 3,000 acres over the past five years.
He also rejected a claim made by some critics that Plum Creek easements given after 1994 contained a prohibition against subdivisions.
“Our easements are all purpose, for all uses,” said Sorensen, the company’s director of land asset management in the Rocky Mountains. “They don’t say no subdivisions. They say for any development, you have to go back to the Forest Service to consult with them on the nature of the road.”
Rey said he will give the county commissioners and other interested parties a “reasonable amount of time” to raise additional issues before renewing the easements.
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