WASHINGTON – Congressional investigators have flagged potential problems with a proposed road access agreement between the Forest Service and the nation’s largest private landowner — a deal that could lead to increased development on Montana forestland and possibly around the country.
The Government Accountability Office, Congress’s investigative arm, looked into private negotiations between Plum Creek Timber Co. and the Forest Service at the behest of two Democratic senators, including Sen. Jon Tester of Montana.
A draft agreement reached during those negotiations would amend road easements, which could allow the company to increase development of subdivisions on some of its 1.2 million acres of land in the state.
Though the investigators did not issue an opinion, they said the draft agreement could become precedent to give private landowners around the country increased forest access to residential subdivisions. They added that the private negotiations between the two parties deprived the public of any chance to weigh in.
Tester said the decision should have public input.
“This report sounds all sorts of alarms about the way the Forest Service is doing business,” he said. “It tells me Montana is getting a bum deal on the Forest Service’s road access plan, and that’s exactly why I wanted the GAO to look into it.”
At issue is the scope of Plum Creek’s access to forest roads. The company first approached federal officials about that access after a Forest Service ranger in Seeley Lake, Mont., in 2006 told a potential buyer of company land that roads leading up to the land were not for residential use.
According to the report, government officials eventually disagreed with the ranger after talking with Plum Creek. The agency determined – after some internal dissension – that the company has use of certain Forest Service roads for any purpose, not just forest management or logging.
The proposed agreement between Plum Creek and the government would clarify that – including specific language that says the company has access to residential subdivisions that may be located on these lands in the future, according to the report.
That claim has been challenged by some Montana county officials, who have argued the easements near Plum Creek lands only allow the roads to be used for forest management and logging. They say the proposal would make it easier for Plum Creek to sell timberland for houses or other development.
The GAO agreed, saying there is “general agreement that many of Plum Creek’s lands in western Montana would have a substantially higher value if the amendment is carried out, because the clear provision for residential access would enhance these lands’ value for residential development purposes.”
Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, and a spokeswoman for Plum Creek both said that they are now engaging county officials in the process. Rey said he hopes the agreement is finished by the end of the year.
“We are getting some suggestions for changes that I think are reasonable, so I think there will be some changes made,” Rey said, adding the agency should have sought input from the counties earlier.
Rey said he disagrees, however, with the GAO suggestion that the agreement could affect easements on forest lands in other parts of the country. Those agreements are already in place, he said.
Kathy Budinick, spokeswoman for Plum Creek, said the company is listening to the counties’ concerns.
“Plum Creek will not implement the amendment in any county that doesn’t wish to have it,” she said.
Investigators said they were told by Department of Agriculture officials that they were considering a change in policy to clarify that the company can use the roads for any purpose, but reversed course after Plum Creek expressed concern that a new administration could revise or revoke such a guidance. Instead, they decided to amend all of Plum Creek’s easements to state that they provide for residential access.
In exchange, Plum Creek would agree that future owners of the land would take certain fire protection measures and belong to an association that would help maintain the roads.
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