In a meeting with Plum Creek Timber Co. and U.S. Forest Service officials last week about a controversial road-easement deal, Flathead County commissioners criticized both groups for not being more upfront about their plans and expressed concern about potential unintended consequences the easements could have on the county.
“There’s been talk that all this happened behind closed doors,” Commissioner Gary Hall said. “I don’t believe that, but here, and with other counties, there’s the feeling that talks with us have happened at the end of the process instead of the middle.”
The gathering here was one in a series of public talks with local officials in western Montana.
Road-easement discussions that occurred privately between Plum Creek and the Forest Service over the past two years have drawn fire in recent months, especially in Missoula County where officials filed a Freedom of Information Act request for related documents this summer. The county has received about 110 pages of information so far. The federal agency plans to deliver more, but is withholding “internal deliberations, opinions, recommendations and drafts” exempt from disclosure.
Critics say that under the easements as they have long been interpreted, company use of national forest roads is allowed to manage timberlands. Forest Service and Plum Creek officials say the easements allow access for a variety of legal purposes, including residential development.
In Flathead County, the road-easement amendment would affect about 235 miles of roads, 111 miles on Forest Service land and 124 miles on Plum Creek property, Jerry Sorensen, land asset management director for Plum Creek, told the commission. Plum Creek owns about 252,000 acres in Flathead County, while the Forest Service has about 1.7 million acres.
The Forest Service sees the amendments as a clarification of existing easements, and a way to protect recreational values, public access and avoid future litigation, Tom Suk, a lands specialist for the Forest Service, said.
For decades, Plum Creek and the Forest Service have “co-owned” roads that cross each other’s property, sharing cost and maintenance and allowing mutual access, Suk said. But as Plum Creek has begun to sell its timberlands for development, there’s been confusion over the details of those easements.
“They’ve been fairly general, but worked fine because we’ve known what our intentions were,” Suk said. “But as new landowners who weren’t party to these original agreements are coming in, we’re facing the problem of people taking different interpretations of what the easements say and what they can and can’t do.”
Suk framed the new easements as a preemptive strike, where the Forest Service could clarify issues with one large landowner now, instead of waiting and dealing with hundreds individually. The proposed amendment would force the establishment of homeowners associations and fuel-mitigation standards around homes, he added.
But county officials throughout the state, including the Flathead Commission, remain skeptical.
Those opposed to the change say the amendment liberalized the easements, allowing Plum Creek to more easily subdivide its forested land and turning Forest Service roads into driveways. County officials are especially concerned about taxpayers having to subsidize growth in remote areas – primarily in terms of protection against wildfires.
Commissioner Joe Brenneman questioned whether homeowners in future subdivisions would have year-round, vehicular road access – or be shut out during winter months. Homeowners associations, he added, are also notorious for breaking apart.
“In the case where one of these dissolves or someone finds they don’t have the access they expected, what’s to stop them from suing the county because we allowed them to do something dumb?” he asked. “Why would I as a commissioner want to put a subdivision in a place that seems to place Flathead County in an inherently weak position?”
Suk said there would be a five-year buffer before any association was dissolved, and stressed that the Forest Service and Plum Creek would continue discussions with the county and welcome ideas or changes to the amendment.
“I wish we could guarantee to find the fix for every possible situation,” Suk said. “Is this document perfect? Probably not. Can we make a perfect one at this stage? Probably not. But can we make a difficult situation a little better than it already is? I think we can.”
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