The Washington-based timber giant Weyerhaeuser on Tuesday announced an agreement to sell its 630,000 acres of Montana timberland to a private investment company for $145 million in cash, according to a company press release that was scant on additional details.
“The sale of our Montana acreage is part of our ongoing effort to strategically optimize our timberland portfolio,” Devin W. Stockfish, president and chief executive officer of Weyerhaeuser, said in a statement. “The transaction includes a diverse mix of softwood species and an existing 110,000-acre conservation easement which preserves public access in perpetuity.”
The company’s three manufacturing facilities in the Flathead Valley are not affected by the announcement, according to the release, though officials would not disclose further details about the buyer or what the sale means for the future of public access on the parcels.
“Our manufacturing operations in Montana continue to deliver strong results,” Stockfish said. “Our people have done an outstanding job driving improvement in safety and operational excellence over the past several years, and they also do terrific work to support the communities where we operate.”
The finer points of how the transaction, which is expected to be completed in the second quarter of 2020, will affect land access in Northwest Montana, most of it in the Salish Range from Kalispell to Libby, remain unclear following the announcement.
In 2016, Weyerhaeuser officially merged with Plum Creek, forming the largest private owner of timberland in the U.S., with more than 13 million acres, including at the time 880,000 acres in Montana, the bulk of which are located in this corner of the state. Weyerhaeuser purchased Plum Creek for $8.4 billion.
Tom Ray, a former resources and manufacturing leader at Plum Creek and the current Montana resource team leader for Weyerhaeuser, said he couldn’t comment on Tuesday’s announcement.
“At this time we are not making any more comments other than what’s in the release,” Ray said when reached by phone.
Among the many questions left unanswered is the identity of the buyer and whether the new entity intends to manage the parcels for timber production or sell them off for private development. For hunters and anglers, the announcement casts a pall over the fate of public access to vast swaths of land in Northwest Montana, which for decades have been cherished for their hunting, fishing and recreational opportunities.
After Weyerhaeuser merged with Plum Creek Timber Co., the company was quick to quell those concerns by renewing Plum Creek’s annual contract with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks through the state’s block management program. The agreement, which was voluntarily renewed by Plum Creek for decades, allows hunters and other recreationists to access the private land in exchange for state game wardens patrolling the property.
With the announcement of the sale, the future of the agreement hangs in jeopardy.
“Montana outdoor families have had it very good for a long time — both Plum Creek and Weyerhaeuser allowed us to hunt and fish on this land with very reasonable limitations,” Ben Long, a local hunter and conservationist, said. “For most of this land, future access is once again thrown into question. Our way of life is basically in the hands of this ‘private timberland investment company.’ Whoever that buyer is, we will need to work hard for creative ways to keep public access to our water, fish and wildlife that we are accustomed to.”
According to the release, the transaction is subject to customary closing conditions and is expected to be completed in the second quarter of 2020. The company anticipates minimal tax liability in conjunction with the transaction.
Weyerhaeuser operates the former Plum Creek stud and plywood mills in Evergreen and plywood and medium density fiberboard plants, as well as a sawmill, in Columbia Falls. It also absorbed the corporate headquarters, known as the Cedar Palace, in Columbia Falls, which the company has since sold.
At the time of the merger, Plum Creek employed 759 people in Montana, including 633 in the manufacturing division.
This story will be updated.