Investment Firms Blast Plum Creek Land Deal

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA – Two investment firms are calling on Plum Creek Timber Co. to disavow a deal with the U.S. Forest Service on forest-road easements.

In a letter to Plum Creek, they say any short-term gains won through private negotiations could be negated by negative publicity and a loss of investor confidence.

The letter, dated Aug. 1, was signed by Shelley Alpern, vice president of Trillium Asset Management in Boston; and Bruce Herbert, president of Newground investments in Seattle.

Alpern said company representatives have been getting an earful about Plum Creek’s controversial talks with Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey. For nearly two years, the company and Rey met behind closed doors, hammering out a deal regarding forest-road easements.

The Missoula County Commission and representatives of some other Montana counties say that under the easements as they have long been interpreted, company use of national forest roads is allowed for access to Plum Creek timberlands so they can be managed. Rey and Plum Creek say the easements allow access for a variety of legal purposes, including residential development.

Critics say the negotiations liberalized the easement agreement. Rey has said the talks explored “clarifying language” so the government would have an easier time dealing with a Plum Creek successor in the event of land sales.

The financial investment houses asked Plum Creek to hold additional meetings with local officials on the matter, and to take steps ensuring transparency during future negotiations.

The steps are critical, stockholders wrote, “to protect shareholder value and rehabilitate our company’s reputation.”

That reputation, increasingly, is defined as “a former timber company, now a builder of McMansions, that is unconcerned with its impact on sensitive landscapes and local communities,” Alpern said.

“We will be responding to the letter,” said company spokeswoman Kathy Budinick, “but we haven’t yet done so.”

Budinick would not say whether her company might back away from the current road easement deal. However, she told the Missoulian newspaper in a story Wednesday that Plum Creek would not implement the plan in counties opposed to the change.

Bruce Herbert of Newground said that misses the point, which he said is that the deal was crafted, perhaps illegally, outside the established federal rules governing public participation, and it will have access implications for other companies that might not care what counties think.

“There’s a very serious precedent here,” Herbert told the newspaper. “If this turns into a lawsuit and Plum Creek gets pulled in, which it will, then that cannot be good for business.”