Missoula County Official: FOIA Response Inadequate

By Beacon Staff

Missoula County’s deputy attorney says recently released documents related to agreements between the U.S. Forest Service and Plum Creek Timber Co. don’t go into enough detail about the private negotiations between the two parties.

“You’d at least expect some e-mails or memos between them,” said Deputy County Attorney James McCubbin. “But there’s nothing like that. There’s nothing whatsoever to explain the process they worked through.”

The documents were provided late last week after Missoula County filed a Freedom of Information Act request in June. Local officials hoped for information about how Plum Creek and the Forest Service crafted a legal amendment to old road easements, which if approved would grant the timber company access across federal land for all purposes, including residential subdivision.

The amendment, which became known this spring, angered local government leaders. They worried taxpayers would bear the burden of providing services, including wildfire control, to new neighborhoods in remote timberlands.

Western Montana counties have argued that the historic forest road easements are intended for log hauling only. But Plum Creek officials — and now Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service — say the easements are unlimited and can be used for any purpose.

The amendment hasn’t been enacted, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has initiated a review by the Government Accountability Office to determine whether the private talks should have been public.

McCubbin, who announced Monday that he received the first documents from his FOIA request, said the paperwork didn’t include anything about the negotiations between Plum Creek and Rey’s office, “which we certainly expected to see.” He added that the documents didn’t reveal any internal Forest Service communication or legal discussion about the scope of the old easements.

“We wanted to see how this unfolded, what the opinions were and how the rationale was reached,” he said. “And that’s exactly what they still seem to be trying to conceal. They’re failing to disclose any documents that would reveal how the process was conducted.”

Rey was traveling Wednesday and was unavailable for comment.

McCubbin said he would wait for more documents to be released, but left open the option of filing an appeal.

“That’s probably the next step,” he said. “If they refuse to supply the information, we’ll have to appeal. There isn’t really any other option.”