Forest Service Head: FOIA Will Yield No Surprises

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The Bush administration’s top official overseeing the U.S. Forest Service says he expects Missoula County officials to find no surprises in documents they obtained from the agency after requesting them under the Freedom of Information Act.

The documents provided late last week reflect “pretty much what we’ve been saying” about agreements between the Forest Service and Plum Creek Timber Co. regarding company use of roads in national forests, Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey told The Associated Press in a phone interview Tuesday.

He and Plum Creek maintain those easements allow company use of the roads for a variety of purposes. Missoula County says company use only is for access to Plum Creek timberlands so they can be managed. County officials, joined by some other local officials in Montana, have expressed concern that roads could be used for access fostering residential development on remote timberlands where providing public services would be particularly costly.

Representatives of the Forest Service and Plum Creek recently negotiated easement amendments, which Rey said have not yet been formalized. At the request of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the Government Accountability Office is investigating the private nature of the negotiations and their outcome.

Rey said the back-and-forth about easements arose from a 2006 letter by Ranger Tim Love of the Seeley Lake Ranger District north of Missoula.

In that letter, Love said some people had interpreted easement language to mean roads could be used for any lawful purpose, but “it is our position that such is not the case.” The easements were authorized specifically for timber management and logging, he said.

“That (conclusion) was a simple legal error by someone not licensed to practice law in either Montana or any other jurisdiction because he’s a forester, not a lawyer,” Rey said.

Love’s response when he was contacted by phone on Tuesday: “He’s the boss. That’s the way it goes.”

The letter was among the FOIA documents that Missoula County officials received, but they possessed a copy earlier.

More FOIA documents will be provided once they are on “disks so we don’t have to cart wheelbarrow-loads of papers around,” Rey said. That could take a couple of weeks, he said.