Update: Plum Creek Abandons Forest Service Road Deal

By Beacon Staff

Update: Matthew Frank of NewWest.net has a great, comprehensive story on Plum Creek Timber Co. backing out of its road easement plan just as Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey seemed poised to push the changes through. His story links to the PDF file of the letter from Plum Creek to Missoula County, and has lots of background.

Update: The Missoulian‘s Michael Jamison has the scoop of the day on this issue, reporting that Plum Creek Timber Co. is abandoning its road easement deal with Agriculture Undersecretary amid strident public opposition. From his story:

“Although we continue to believe that the easement amendment would be beneficial to the general public, given the lack of receptivity, we have decided not to go forward with the amendment,” Plum Creek President and CEO Rick Holley wrote Monday, in a letter to Missoula County.

At issue were forest road easements, which allow the Forest Service and Plum Creek to share access across their intermingled lands.

Historically, those easements were thought to be narrow, allowing access for timber hauling only.

But Plum Creek and Rey maintain the historic easements allow for all sorts of access, including residential subdivision. For a year and a half, the company and Rey worked quietly to craft a legal amendment to the old easements that would confirm their position.

The Washington Post reported Sunday that U.S. Forest Service head Mark Rey plans to change agency agreements allowing for the paving of logging roads through federal land to private land, which would allow for the development of subdivisions in remote, forested areas by Plum Creek Timber Co. Montanans and regular readers of this site are no doubt familiar with this long-running and highly controversial issue here, one that has galvanized Missoula and Flathead County governments against the so-called “closed-door” meetings between Plum Creek and the Forest Service to work out these road easement deals. If the Post’s reporting is accurate, Rey plans to brief Western lawmakers, like Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., on his intention to finalize the changes in the closing days of the Bush Administration. While campaigning in Montana, President-elect Barack Obama made clear his opposition to the road changes, so Rey needs to move before Jan. 20, Obama’s inauguration, or the rule change proposal will die.

Check out the entire WaPost article here and some key excerpts below. It’s sure to be a major piece of news throughout Montana for the next two weeks, depending on what Rey does before the inauguration.

Scenic western Montana, where Plum Creek owns 1.2 million acres, would be most affected, placing fresh burdens on county governments to provide services and undoing efforts to cluster housing near towns.

“Just within the last couple weeks, they finalized a big subdivision west of Kalispell,” said D. James McCubbin, deputy county attorney of Missoula County, which complained that the closed-door negotiations violated federal laws requiring public comment because the changes would affect endangered species and sensitive ecosystems. Kalispell is in Flathead County, where officials also protested.

The uproar last summer forced Rey to postpone finalizing the change, which came after “considerable internal disagreement” within the Forest Service, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report requested by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). The report said that 900 miles of logging roads could be paved in Montana and that amending the long-held easements “could have a nationwide impact.”

Tester and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, then asked for an inquiry by the inspector general of the Agriculture Department, which includes the Forest Service.

“I think we need another set of eyes on it,” Tester said Friday. “I don’t think that’s running out the clock. If this is a good agreement, then what’s the rush? Why do it in the eleventh hour of this administration?”