This week’s announcement that Washington-based timber giant Weyerhaeuser was selling its Montana timber portfolio to an undisclosed buyer raised a host of concerns about how the new owner would manage the 630,000-acre acquisition and whether it would continue the long-standing practice of allowing public access to hunters, anglers and other land users.
On Saturday, an attorney for Southern Pine Plantations confirmed the Georgia-based timberland investment company had entered a sale and purchase agreement with Weyerhaeuser and “in light of fast-developing speculation” attempted to lay those concerns to rest.
“While we can’t provide specifics before the deal closes, SPP has no plan to change the long-standing practices of the prior owners related to public access, forest management, grazing, existing outfitting agreements and conservation easements, and other programs,” said James Bowditch, president of Boon Karlberg P.C., who is serving as legal counsel for SPP. “Again, we can’t comment further at this time, but we felt it was in the public interest to provide this assurance to concerned Montanans.”
Citing a confidentiality agreement, Bowditch said he couldn’t discuss details of the purchase agreement or the $145 million cash sale, which Weyerhaeuser in its Dec. 17 announcement said it expected to finalize in the second quarter of 2020.
Still, Bowditch said it was in SPP’s immediate interests to assuage concerns, and went so far as to acknowledge the company’s recent track record of purchasing timberland in Idaho only to sell it to private investors — a transaction the attorney said had no bearing on its interests in the Weyerhaeuser purchase.
“They really don’t plan to do anything different than what’s being done currently,” Bowditch told the Beacon when reached by phone Saturday. “We feel like there was concern that this was a bunch of Wall Street investors buying up property for a quick flip. That is not what is happening at all. This is a timber company and they intend to manage the land for timber. They might even be in a more nimble position than Weyerhaeuser given they are not as large of a company.”
Weyerhaeuser has been a household name in this corner of Montana since 2016, when it officially merged with Plum Creek Timber Co., 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. Weyerhaeuser purchased Plum Creek for $8.4 billion.
While the transaction was major news for timber management in the state, it also touched a nerve with land users accustomed to Plum Creek’s proven history of allowing public access. After the merger, Weyerhaeuser was quick to address 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.
This week, sportsmen groups, conservation organizations and state and federal lawmakers renewed the clarion call for continued public access.
In a joint letter to Weyerhaeuser from state Sen. Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, and Rep. Greg Hertz, R- Polson, the legislators urged the company to consider the cherished legacy of public land access in Montana as it proceeds with the transaction.
“As we look to the future, it is our hope that Montanans can expect the same level of access to these private lands following your sale of this timberland to an undisclosed party,” Sales, who is president of the Senate, and Hertz, who is speaker of the House, wrote. “Just this year, legislators worked tirelessly with members of the public, wildlife and conservation advocates, landowners, and government agencies to pass the landmark Public Access to Lands (PAL) Act. More than ever, we are unified behind the protection, conservation, and promotion of our public lands. This is only possible when private owners and the public sector work together.”
“It is our hope that you convey to the next owners of this large piece of Montana timberland that the legislators are eager to develop a working relationship with them and to carry on the tradition of responsible stewardship shown by Weyerhaeuser, and Plum Creek before you,” the letter continues.
According to Bowditch, the message has been conveyed loud and clear.
“We don’t anticipate any real change with the transfer of ownership,” he said. “I think people will be pleasantly surprised.”