Baucus, Plum Creek, Conservation Groups Announce Massive Land Deal

By Beacon Staff

Standing just below the summit of Kalispell’s Lone Pine State Park, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., Monday announced the purchase of 320,000 acres of Plum Creek Timber Company-owned land by two conservation groups, calling the deal, “the largest land purchase, for conservation purposes, in American history.”

Dubbed, “The Montana Legacy Project,” The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land are buying the acreage for $510 million, and will finance payments on the land over the next three years through private and public sources, with the federal government paying for about half the cost through a forestry conservation bond mechanism Baucus inserted into the recently passed Farm Bill.

Plum Creek is selling 223,400 acres in Missoula County, and 35,500 acres in the Swan Valley, along with 13,800 acres in Lincoln County. No land close to Kalispell or Whitefish was on the selling block.

Spokesmen for the conservation groups said the deal will preserve the land for wildlife habitat, public recreation and sustainable forestry.

“It’s a place that so clearly defines our Montana way of life that it would be tragic to lose it as backcountry sprawl,” said Dana Christensen, chair of The Nature Conservancy in Montana. “The reality is that this land was going to be sold, at some point, to someone.”

Architects of the deal say they envision the land will eventually be a mix of state, federal and private ownership. A condition of the agreement allows Plum Creek to harvest timber on the land for up to 15 years. Eric Love, director of The Trust for Public Land’s Rocky Mountain Division, said the Legacy Project will involve the local communities that use the land currently to help work out the best mix of public and private ownership.

Baucus praised Plum Creek for “being such a good partner,” adding, “Clearly, Plum Creek wanted to do the right thing.”

The praise from the timber giant was mutual, with Hank Ricklefs, Plum Creek’s vice president of northern resources and manufacturing, thanking Baucus for making the deal possible.

Baucus helped lay the groundwork for the deal by creating a public financing mechanism known as Qualified Forest Conservation Bonds, and inserting the provision into the $307 billion federal Farm Bill, which passed in May. Baucus authorized the issuance of $500 million in the conservation bonds. In order to be eligible to receive the bonds: The land deal must be for more than 40,000 acres; adjacent to U.S. Forest Service land with the half the land to become U.S.F.S. property; and subject to a native fish conservation plan.

The Montana Legacy Project is eligible to receive up to $250 million in the conservation bonds, for the 90,000 acres that will be eventually transferred to U.S.F.S. ownership – much of which are the so-called “checker-boarded” lands inside existing Forest Service land.

As the Farm Bill worked its way through Congress, some Republican critics questioned whether the creation of the conservation bonds was specifically tailored to purchase Plum Creek’s land in Montana – since the criteria to get the bonds accurately describes the Plum Creek land in the current deal. A vote to remove Baucus’s provision from the Farm Bill failed in the House.

Baucus denied that he targeted the conservation bonds for Plum Creek’s Montana land, saying the Legacy Project will serve as a model for how similar conservation-purchase land agreements can be worked out elsewhere in the U.S.

“This is big here – I’m quite confident that various groups around the country are looking at this,” Baucus said. “It was written in a way that it can be used in other parts of the country.”