On Jan. 14, Green Diamond Resource Company officially acquired 291,000 acres of working forest land west of Kalispell, becoming the third owner in less than a year to take over management of one of Northwest Montana’s most valuable commodities.
But the value of the timber parcels won’t be immediately realized through traditional revenues, particularly as much of the acreage has been logged for generations, meaning that renewing the forest’s conventional productivity can only be re-upped through one strategy — time.
Fortunately for Green Diamond, which purchased the land from Southern Pine Plantations (SPP), there’s value in patience, particularly when another revenue stream will make the acquisition pencil out in the interim.
“We think of it as a generational asset, which will come into value as the inventory grows, the volume gets better and we can create more yield,” Neil Ewald, Green Diamond’s senior vice president and chief operating officer, said during a recent visit from his Seattle home to Kalispell. “These forests will produce more timber decades from now. So when we started looking at this purchase a year ago, we knew that part of our yield stream would come from something other than timber harvests. And that’s why the conservation opportunities here were so attractive.”
To understand those conservation opportunities, first a bit of history.
In December 2019, when SPP, a Georgia-based investment firm, paid $145 million in exchange for 630,000 acres of timberland in Flathead and Lincoln counties, purchasing the land from Weyerhaeuser Co. as the timber giant unloaded the last of its Montana inventory. The exchange raised plenty of eyebrows as the new owners openly discussed the possibility of future sales to private investors, which could jeopardize the public’s ability to use the lands for hunting, fishing and recreation, while fragmenting some of the best wildlife habitat in the West.
But SPP pledged to maintain longstanding public access agreements and to continue negotiating permanent protections — a promise the sporting community took to heart.
That pledge remains in place despite the November 2020 announcement that SPP was indeed selling nearly half of its newly acquired acreage to Green Diamond Resource Company, which owns about 2.1 million acres of working forest lands in Washington, Oregon, California, and now, Montana.
Not only did Green Diamond accept the responsibility as stewards of a landscape prized for its recreational opportunities, it inherited a landscape-level conservation project crafted to protect vast swaths of the land in perpetuity.
“There’s a saying that there are two income streams from forestry — income for today and value for tomorrow,” Ewald said. “Well, we’re not desperate for income today. We don’t have any big notes to pay off. But we think we can maximize the value for the future.”
One revenue stream will come from existing conservation easements, or donations from landowners that eliminate the potential development on a property in exchange for significant benefits in income, estate and property taxes.
“We have had some experience working on land that has been highly harvested and cut over by experts,” Ewald said. “It’s actually quite similar to some of our land in Oregon. These are young forests but they’re well-stocked lands that are being managed well, and there’s still a need to manage them. And although I remain woefully ignorant of how to manage a mixed conifer forest in the Rocky Mountains, there is an income stream from the conservation projects here. We don’t want to perpetuate over-harvesting, but we do want to focus on maximizing value.”
Like its predecessors at SPP, and before that at Weyerhaeuser Co., officials at Green Diamond said access and conservation would remain top priorities as they engage management agencies and partner with stakeholders.
According to Ewald, Green Diamond has a long history of managing forests to maintain and improve productivity while protecting shared values including recreation, clean water, wildlife and carbon.
In an effort to preserve access, Green Diamond will continue enrollment in the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) block management program, “to maintain public access for hunting, fishing and other recreational activities.”
Green Diamond will also assume the terms of the Thompson-Fisher River Conservation Easement, much of which is now part of the Green Diamond footprint, and will work with the Trust for Public Land (TPL) toward completion of the ongoing Montana Great Outdoors Conservation Project and the Lost Trail Conservation Area.
“These projects would ensure access to key recreation areas for area residents and visitors while maintaining working forests,” according to Green Diamond Resources Company President Douglas Reed.
Reed also said Green Diamond would assume the terms of the Native Fish Habitat Conservation Plan, which provides habitat protection for native fish including bull trout, cutthroat and other species. The company operates under similar conservation agreements on other holdings.
“Agreements such as the Native Fish Habitat Conservation Plan provide for long-term stability to manage forests in concert with protection of habitat for sensitive species,” Reed said.
SPP President Pat Patton said the sale was contingent on the new owners maintaining the long-term viability of the land as a resource for Montana’s hunters and anglers.
“We are proud to achieve a positive outcome for the people of Montana on such a significant portion of our Montana lands,” Patton said. “We believe Green Diamond will be an excellent long-term steward. We will continue working with The Trust for Public Land with the hope that a majority of our Montana lands might remain working and open to the public forever.”
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