State Negotiations Shed Light on Federal Talks

By Beacon Staff

GREAT FALLS – As Plum Creek Timber repositions itself as a real estate company, it is working with the state of Montana to expand its logging road easements, so it can bring improved access and underground utilities to land that it can later subdivide into rural communities.

The state negotiations may shed some light on private talks held between Plum Creek and the U.S. Forest Service.

Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director Mary Sexton says the state has upgraded Plum Creek’s traditional 40-foot right-of-way deeds across state lands to 60-foot right of ways. The state is adding additional “all-lawful-purposes” rights to easements originally granted for natural resource uses such as logging.

And the state is negotiating with the Forest Service over cost-sharing agreements with the Forest Service, for the use and maintenance of roads that cross both state and federal lands.

Some environmental watchdogs argue the state is not doing enough to notify the public about the long-term fiscal and environmental implications of the agreements. They say the state and county governments could end up subsidizing services such as fire and police protection to far-off subdivisions at taxpayer expense.

“The change of use isn’t just the widening of the road. The change of use is anything goes,” Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan told the Great Falls Tribune, which reported Sunday on the agreements between Plum Creek and the state.

Critics say subdivision in the forest would harm air and water quality and wildlife habitat and dramatically increase wildfire protection costs for state and county governments, and that the state has turned a blind eye to those concerns.

Plum Creek, owns 1.2 million acres in Montana and more than 8 million acres nationwide, making it the largest private landowner in the state and the nation. In 1999 the company reorganized from a timber company to a real estate investment trust, and it is now increasingly relying on property sales to supplement the company’s bottom line as timber prices fall. The company is considering selling up to 2 billion acres, though it hasn’t disclosed where those lands are located.

To sell those lands for development, Plum Creek is seeking all-lawful-purposes rights on Forest Service road easements that were traditionally granted for timber and natural resources use.

In April, Missoula County commissioners learned of those negotiations and demanded they be made public. Commissioners are concerned the Forest Service is giving Plum Creek additional access rights that will pave the way for development deep in the woods, greatly increasing the burden on county government to maintain roads and protect homes from fire.

Sen. Jon Tester asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the matter. The investigation began last week.

Sexton said that, unlike the Forest Service negotiations, the state’s process of upgrading forest road easements has been an open and public process subject to the Montana Environmental Policy Act. Also, the state Land Board, made up of the state’s five top elected officials, must sign off on all state easements.

Montgomery said that for a program that deals with Plum Creek on hot-button issues like backcountry development, a more significant public process ought to be in place.

“I think people should be aware of it, and I think for the most part they probably are not,” Montgomery said.