Closing Range

Montana Powerless

Western Montanans used to enjoy a freedom like no other, a Heaven on Earth open to anyone caring to explore

By Dave Skinner

The headline was “Texas Power Couple Acquires 125,800 Acres of Timberland West of Kalispell,” basically a solid chunk of everything Plum Creek from McGregor Lake/Hubbart to Rollins. Wow, that didn’t take long.

Green Diamond’s buy of 291,000 acres in the Thompson River region closed only last month, leaving Southern Pine Plantations only 214,000 acres left to flip. After that, Montana will have kissed away something important, forever.

Almost 20 years ago, I had a fascinating interview with retired Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas. Among other things, I learned Thomas had grown up in Texas and been a Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist prior to joining the Forest Service, playing and then working in an environment with very little public land and a norm of fee access for outdoor activities. But in 1974, he explained, Thomas was promoted by the Forest Service to run a research station at La Grande, in northeast Oregon’s Blue Mountains. After moving and settling in, he told me: “I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven.”

I asked the chief why, and got a 10-minute, rather passionate, “off-topic” lecture that stabbed me in the heart. Overall, he described the feeling of coming from the east, where everything was posted, to Oregon where the landscape was wide open across cooperating and mutually supportive federal, state and private ownerships. For the first time in his life, Thomas (and anyone else) could get out and just explore, as far in any direction as one desired, “without having to ask permission or pay a fee.” To him, it was a “freedom like no other.”

Thing is, Western Montanans used to enjoy exactly that same freedom like no other, a Heaven on Earth open to anyone caring to explore, at least until the early 1990s.

Then came, among other things, litigation over grizzly bears, forcing a wave of road closures on federal lands, plus a huge decline in active federal harvesting. That federal decline drove private harvests up in compensation, to levels we now know couldn’t be kept up in the long term.

But who knew first? Plum Creek certainly read the tea leaves early and correctly, and more importantly, acted.

Critically, and little remarked at the time, in July 1999 Plum Creek Timber became a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT for short) to, as Wikipedia puts it, “obtain tax and accounting advantages available to real estate developers.”

The advantages were such that only eight years later, Plum Creek was America’s largest private landowner, with eight million acres in 18 states, more than even giant Weyerhaeuser. For a short while, Plum Creek, was Montana’s largest private landowner – but it was all on the sales block. Government became Plum Creek and successor Weyerhaeuser’s preferred customer, mainly because only politicians can be dumb enough to pay such stupid prices (between $800 and $2,500 per acre), prices no sane private company nor individual would ever pay.

Then last year, all of a sudden, Southern Pine Plantations becomes Montana’s biggest private landowner, buying 630,000 acres with one $145 million check, $230 per acre. SPP then flipped 291,000 acres of Thompson River country to Green Diamond in January, and just a few days into February, all of 125,800 acres from McGregor Lake and Hubbart/Red Gate across Browns Meadow to Rollins are now a “ranch” for some Texas billionaires. The rest should flip soon, with SPP heading back to Georgia with their winnings – how much, we’ll never know, but it’ll be a nice return for two years of “work.”

Then what? Well, take a look at Green Diamond’s Washington access policies and from there, explore their site. As for the Jones family and their new ranch, there’s hope for a good outcome, but neither they, nor Green Diamond or any other buyer, are under any obligation whatsoever for continuing public access in the “Montana way.”

Montana’s state government is the only entity left even remotely capable of acquiring these last lands, capturing the final last vestiges of a freedom like no other, but so far, they’ve acted in the good old Montana way, basically Montana powerless. 

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