Opinion

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Closing Range

Montana’s Last Best Chance

The state is at a final crossroads, with just one last, best chance to do the right thing at a scale that matters

Weyerhaeuser is selling the vast majority of its remaining acreage in Montana to a little-known Georgia-based real-estate holding company, keeping only about 140,000 acres back from the 770,000 acres or so Plum Creek still held in Montana at the time of Weyco’s 2016 takeover.

Clearly, Weyerhaeuser wants to be rid of Montana soonest, consummating the cash-grabbing exit strategy begun by merger partner Plum Creek 20 years ago. But this time, rather than wait for the unholy alliance of land trusts and gullible politicians to arrange “conservation” deals at crazy-stupid prices several times what the private sector would pay, Weyerhaeuser wants to jump Montana’s ship at a price the market might actually be able to bear: $230 per acre.

Wow – keep in mind the Montana Legacy Project paid Plum Creek an average of $1,580 per acre, or $490 million for just 310,000 thinly treed acres.

So, who negotiated this latest package? Southern Pine Plantations, a Georgia-based brokerage and investment firm “owned by a single individual” specializing in large parcels of rural real estate, mainly in the Southern states. SPP also has a commercial real estate leasing and development LLC.

Southern Pine seems fairly small. SPP’s website outlines their ownership and management of over 150,000 acres of “core timberlands” in seven states, including Montana, the “Montana” portion appearing to be 18,137 acres of “Harms Estate” bought in 2007.

Samples of what SPP sells include, say, 484 acres of “excellent hunting” in Lafayette County, Florida for $1,350 an acre, a real 3,700-acre Southern plantation in South Carolina for $2,975 an acre, and so on.

It seems that a Southern firm holding only 150,000 acres would be taking a giant blind leap by taking on 630,000 acres at the far corner of the country. But SPP has a brief, and apparently successful, track record in the Northwest, according to reporting from the Idaho Statesman:

In mid-2016, SPP bought 171,000 acres in Idaho from Potlatch (land multi-spun off from Boise Cascade (2004) to Forest Capital Partners, to Western Pacific Timber (2005), then Potlatch (2007), more than doubling its core holdings.

What happened then? In early 2017, all of it flipped to DF Development, a Texas company owned by fracking billionaires Dan and Farris Wilks. Yep, those guys. I’m grateful to them for being fracking kings, but unimpressed with their attempts to turn Montana into North Texas. Gates went up, sledders and loggers were temporarily kicked off, and big hunks have gone back on the market, say an 11,000-acre ranch for just over $10 million.

In short, SPP flipped inside of a year, to buyers with an earned reputation for cutting a wide, disruptive swath. Did it go well for SPP? Apparently so, because now they’re interested in 630,000 acres.

What might SPP do in Montana? Well, after 20 years of watching Plum Creek and others strip not only trees, but mountains of public cash off these land grants in the greatest cut-and-run ever perpetrated, shouldn’t Montanans know better than to wait and find out how SPP intends to strip the marrow out of what is already a skeleton?

Yep. Montana is at a final crossroads, with just one last, best chance to do the right thing at a scale that matters. Just imagine if Montana had bought the Montana Legacy Project lands at $230 per acre (as timber, actually worth only about $165 per acre), or a total of about $71 million? What if Montana had a shot at paying a fair, honest price for new state forests, consolidated under a long-term multiple-use mandate, managed of, by, and for the citizens of Montana?

That would have been a real Montana legacy, starting a new era of Montana forestry, of stable supply based on long-term market and climatic realities, not short-term asset stripping, or as it turned out, a series of epic taxpayer rip-offs.

Now that there’s 630,000 acres up for grabs, at real-market value, no less, don’t you think Weyerhaeuser should have made an offer to the state of Montana? I do, because Montana forestry deserves a future – and buying these lands is, without question, Montana’s last best chance to ensure that future – our future.