HELENA – Plum Creek Timber Co. wrote Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey on Thursday, thanking him for work on a national forest road deal the company advocated amid protests in Montana, but then abandoned.
There likely is “shared disappointment” that the public did not support the deal, CEO Rick Holley wrote in a letter to Rey and Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell. The U.S. Department of Agriculture includes the Forest Service.
Seattle-based Plum Creek, the country’s largest owner of private land, said Monday that “given the lack of receptivity,” it no longer wanted to pursue changes in long-standing agreements covering its use of roads in national forests. Missoula County officials were among critics of the changes, saying they might well make it easier for Plum Creek timberlands to become residential subdivisions.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., had criticized the private nature of negotiations between the company and the Forest Service, and soon after a Montana appearance while running for president, Barack Obama said the changes would threaten public access to hunting and fishing in the state.
After meeting with Rey in Washington on Thursday, Tester said he agrees with him that some of the land-use issues included in the scrapped package should be addressed at the state and local levels.
Rey, who had contended changing the road agreements was more to benefit the government on matters such as wildfires and road maintenance than to help Plum Creek, said repeatedly last year that there was limited federal influence over what Plum Creek ultimately did with its land. State and local governments should strengthen zoning laws if they want a greater say in future development, he said.
“We still have the underlying question of does the state of Montana have adequate zoning authority, and the answer appears to be no,” Rey said by phone Thursday after meeting with Tester.
The deal wouldn’t have had much effect beyond Montana, according to Plum Creek, which owns more than 7 million acres nationwide, about 1 million of them in the state.
Earnest discussions between the Forest Service and the company began more than two years ago.
“It’s been a long journey,” Tester said Thursday by phone from Washington. “It was unfortunate from the get-go that the Forest Service didn’t bring everyone to the table. When you have parties that are impacted … they need to be there.”
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