Just Imagine

Taking a look at the Lost Trail conservation proposal

By Dave Skinner

Legislature is weeks away, nobody knows how COVID-19 will affect things yet, so no citizen lobbying guide or bills to pick apart yet. Maybe I could write about what an ace Larry “Grand Poobah of Northforkistan” Wilson is? Oh darn, Katie Cantrell already did a fine job on that. Cong….RATS…ulations! To both. Makes me feel good, that. Maybe a nice topic? Sure, Christmas column, but my next deadline, not this, is the Christmas slot. Hmmm.

Ah, here we go, in the Beacon: Lost Trail Conservation Proposal Poised for Approval. Now I’m all cranky again, but I’ve got my topic.

The Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission is expected to approve the purchase of “conservation easements” on some former Weyerhaeuser ground south of the Lost Trail national wildlife refuge at Dahl Lake in Pleasant Valley. The refuge used to be a ranch, privately owned.

Let’s start with how much is being paid for this easement on 7,256 acres: $4.3 million, or about $593 per acre. Anyone have a problem with that?

Yeah, I read the draft plan, and it reads that if not bought, the owner might “decide to sell some or all of this land depending” on whatever. Honestly, trophy subdivisions or “millionaire estates” would skunk, but that’s unlikely.

Besides, the current proposal skunks all by itself. When Weyerhaeuser bailed out last year, Southern Pine Plantations paid $145 million for 630,000 acres. That’s an average of $230 per acre. Hooooweee, baby! That’s a 257% return on investment in ONE YEAR! Flip-pity do dah, flip a dee ay – my oh my what a payola day.

Even if the transaction drags for a long 18 months before the checks clear, the annual rate of return is still 171%! AND they’ll still be able to cut trees for cash and still unilaterally change access policies?

Honestly, in 2018, before Southern Pine and I suppose Green Diamond got involved (Montanans still don’t know how much Green Diamond paid SPP for its buy), the federal and state wildlife people were in negotiations with Weyerhaeuser. So – paperwork has probably ensured that Weyerhaeuser will be getting that $4.3 million – meaning their net is a tidy $823 per acre. Nice pat on the fiscal fanny on the way out, eh?

Dang, but is there a better way? Just imagin… our brilliant, handsome departing Gov. Steve Bullock, and/or Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director John Tubbs, the Land Board, or just a handful of smart, good-looking, forward-thinking Montana legislators thinking: “Hey, if we’d bought those 630,000 acres and made them state forest or state trust lands, there’d be no need ever again for a conservation easement, would there?”

Well, nobody has, so far, and talk about a blown chance, shamefully only the most recent in a unbroken chain of total federal and state fiscal stupidity, all in the holy name of “conservation.”

Even worse is another part of the Lost Trail proposal, which will authorize the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to buy up to 100,000 more acres “from willing sellers” inside a “newly proposed” USFWS Lost Trail Conservation Area.

Have any of you noticed federal land agencies never have enough money to take care of the responsibilities they already have, instead always crying about “backlogs?” Anyone figured out that USFWS (and other federal) staff answer first to their bosses in the Great Potomac Swamp, before anyone in Montana? Am I alone in noticing that our local, federally “managed” lands aren’t quite the green eye candy they were only 25 years ago, despite being “protected” behind gate after gate after gate?

Please, someone tell me why this “conservation area” – and all of SPP and Green Diamond’s current Montana holdings – can’t instead become productive Montana State Forest units, well managed by servants of, by and for the people of Montana.

Just imagine elected leaders who can and will take this last best chance, to negotiate and pay a fair price for 630,000 acres of Montana forests to finally be ours, and only ours, forever. Just imagine that happening – now, as it must.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.