Is One Plum Creek Enough?

By Beacon Staff

A few weeks ago, down at the saloon where I regularly get lots of advice about what to write about, I heard about the major western Montana landowner switching focus from timber management to real estate development.

Everybody already knows about Plum Creek, I replied.

But they weren’t talking about Plum Creek Timber Company, the largest private landowner in the U.S., and its now-notorious plan to become the largest real estate developer in the U.S. They were talking about the State of Montana becoming “another Plum Creek.”

And it wasn’t just bar talk.

Plum Creek is in the process of selling off up to one million acres of western Montana for residential and commercial development and has been deep in controversy every step of the way. But Plum Creek pales in comparison to the state of Montana, which owns 5.2 million acres, managed by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC). The Board of Land Commissioners or so-called Land Board, made up of the state’s five highest elected officials, makes major decisions involving state lands. The Land Board and DNRC have a mandate to maximize revenue from state lands to help fund public schools in Montana.

Our school system is constantly hurting for money, creating a powerful incentive to squeeze every penny out of state lands. This is why we should be concerned about the preparation of a Real Estate Management Plan for state lands.

The preparation of the real estate plan was open to the public throughout the lengthy process of its preparation. Nonetheless, I suspect most Montanans don’t even know it exists or that the state has already been selling state lands and plans to sell more.

I read through parts of the plan, and I can see why there wasn’t much public participation. It’s general if not vague, a graduate course in bureaucratize, and as politically sanitized as possible. Nonetheless, it outlines a framework for “alternative” and “non-resource-based” methods of earning money from state lands, chief among them, selling the land for residential and commercial development.

Bar room chatter about “another Plum Creek” greatly exaggerates the gravity of the situation, but the potential is there. Even though the state owns some extremely valuable sections near municipalities, there’s little chance of the Land Board following the controversial path blazed by Plum Creek.

Instead, according to DRNC director Mary Sexton, the state has gone into “land banking.” This might sound like forgoing development to preserve land for future needs, but what it really means is “money banking.” Under the land-banking program the Land Board sells land and uses the money to buy more land with potential for generating long-term revenue instead of making a one-time infusion into the school system. This helps the state consolidate lands for better management and often allows municipalities to get important land near the city limits for necessary development. If done correctly, it doesn’t seem too hard to actually increase state-owned acreage by selling a pricey section on the city limits that probably should be developed and buying two or three times as much lower-priced agricultural land in non-urban areas.

“We’re already selling state land in municipal growth areas with city sewer and water, ” Sexton confirmed. “We focus on urban growth areas.”

As an example, she points to a section of state land sold to a land developer on the north edge of Kalispell, part of which was used for the new Glacier High School and the rest went to commercial development like Lowe’s. The state is currently doing a similar deal with a parcel on the north edge of Billings.

Sexton views these two sales and other forays into land banking as opportunities to protect long-term funding for public schools while meeting other community needs.

No doubt, the state has many such opportunities, but there’s also the opportunity for misuse, behind-the-scenes political deals, and to be out-negotiated by land developers, so I hope the state continues to move slowly and carefully with state land sales.

All this leads me to what I see as the real opportunity, the chance to preserve important open space, wildlife habitat, and outdoor recreational opportunities next door to municipalities instead of facilitating more pavement, condos and big boxes.

With prime real estate near the city limits, it’s no mystery what option generates the most revenue. Selling land to developers puts the most money in the bank, even if it’s the “land bank,” but with the growing need for more open space for outdoor recreation near urban areas, I hope this need can become a priority for DNRC and the Land Board.

Montana already does a lot to keep state lands open to public recreation, but current policies emphasize hunting access in rural areas, which is a good thing, and the land banking process does the same – prioritizes recreation, particularly hunting, in rural areas.

With $5 gas around the corner and ever-growing need to conserve energy, we clearly need more recreational opportunity closer to home. Hunting access is a constant struggle, and we should continue and expand current programs, but we need more opportunity for all outdoor activities. And the DNRC and Land Board are in an ideal position to help communities protect open space for outdoor recreation near the city limits.

Devoting state land near cities to outdoor recreation isn’t going to generate the big bucks for schools, but it could maximize benefits for the most people and still generate some revenue. Next week, I plan to write about one place in the Flathead where should happen.

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