Ag Undersecretary: Missoula Appeal “Superfluous and Uninformed.”

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey says Missoula County’s recent appeal over federal handling of a Freedom of Information Act request is “superfluous and uninformed.”

In a telephone interview with The Associated Press this week, Rey talked about the county’s demand for information related to road easements involving the Forest Service, which he oversees, and Plum Creek Timber Co. The county will get all the information it is due under the FOIA request, Rey said, but that may not be all the information sought.

The request filed in June arose as Missoula County officials looked into private negotiations between the Forest Service and Plum Creek, negotiations about possible changes in the easements that are a framework for company use of Forest Service roads.

In the appeal filed last week, the county said the Forest Service provided too little information in response to the FOIA request. As more information is gathered, it will be sent if deemed appropriate for release, Rey said.

The appeal is superfluous because one filed earlier by the county has not been decided, and uninformed because an index requested in the county’s latest appeal is something not normally provided outside of a court case, he said.

Deputy Missoula County Attorney D. James McCubbin on Wednesday defended the request for the index and said the appeal he sent last Friday was submitted one business day before an appeal deadline specified by the Forest Service. McCubbin said the agency told him not meeting that deadline would result in the county forgoing its right to appeal.

“I had no choice by their own rules, which he (Rey) apparently is unfamiliar with,” McCubbin said.

Once the Forest Service has provided all the information it intends to provide, the appeals will be decided, Rey said. In doing so, the Forest Service would prepare an explanation of any gap in information it released and what the county sought, he said. Information that will not be disclosed includes some correspondence between the Forest Service and its legal staff, Rey said.

He indicated months ago that he expected to make permanent the road-easement changes negotiated with Plum Creek. He said this week that he still hopes to take final action on the amendments before leaving office with the change in presidents this winter.

County officials have expressed concern the easement changes could give Plum Creek too much leeway in its use of national forest roads, perhaps fostering development of company lands in ways costly to the county. Rey has said the existing easement language gives Plum Creek flexibility in road use, and county officials place too much weight on the negotiated amendments.