Baucus, Plum Creek Announce Land Plan

By Beacon Staff

BONNER – About one-fourth of Plum Creek Timber Co.’s vast lands in Montana would be conserved for public use under a tentative deal with financing advanced by Sen. Max Baucus.

The Montana Democrat, Plum Creek’s chief executive and representatives of conservation groups gathered next to Montana’s Blackfoot River on Friday to announce a framework for the company’s sale of about 300,000 acres in several areas of the state.

The lands ultimately would be owned by the federal and state governments and available for perpetual public uses such as hunting and hiking. They also are to be managed as forests with harvestable timber.

Seattle-based Plum Creek, the nation’s largest owner of private land, has 1.2 million acres in Montana.

The new farm bill includes a Baucus provision for the sale of tax-credit bonds to help finance land transactions such as the Plum Creek deal, projected to cost $500 million. Bonds would cover up to $250 million. State and private money would be sought for the balance.

Baucus said the Plum Creek deal, its details still to be worked out, stands to be the “largest conservation purchase in American history.”

Transfer of the Plum Creek property to public ownership would mark “unprecedented new access” to land, the senator said.

“Because of what starts here today, we will continue to be the last best place, with more emphasis on the best than on the last,” Baucus said.

Although the deal is not final, Baucus said he has no doubt there will be a signed agreement.

Plum Creek Chief Executive Officer Rick Holley said Baucus took “a lot of heat” over his action on the farm bill, but the pending land agreement supported by that bill is so significant that it is being called the Legacy Project. Holley said the deal is “a work in process” and will include lands in western Montana’s Swan Valley and in Missoula County.

Plum Creek already allows considerable public use of its lands. The company owns the fishing access site where Baucus, Holley and others gathered on Friday.

The Nature Conservancy is a key player and would apply for the bonds.

“We absolutely relish this opportunity to sustain some of the best wildlife habitat in the country,” said Dana Christiansen, the group’s Montana manager.

Eric Love of The Trust for Public Land said the farm bill’s boost in conservation opportunities is Baucus’ “conservation legacy for the state of the Montana.”

President Bush criticized the farm bill as too costly. In defending the conservation incentive, Baucus acknowledged it appeared to be tailored for Montana but said it would be a model for other states seeking to protect land.