Eyebrows raised over Plum Creek offerings in western Montana 

A new real estate sign popped up along the Blackfoot River corridor recently, advertising a 5,140-acre contiguous block of land up Gold Creek. The property lies north of Highway 200 and butts up against the eastern flank of the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. A listing on LandAndFarm.com, posted two weeks ago, bills the property as "a pleasing blend of gently sloping meadows and more mountainous terrain" known to locals as "excellent deer and elk habitat." The asking price: $5.9 million.

The Gold Creek spread is one of the latest chunks of Plum Creek land to hit the market in western Montana. According to Plum Creek communications director Kathy Budinick, the company is selling off a number of tracts near Missoula ranging from 160 to 8,000 acres. Locations include the Deep Creek drainage above Frenchtown and the Blanchard Flats area north of Clearwater Junction.

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"Plum Creek buys and sells land based on market conditions and other factors as a regular course of business, and we've offered land for sale in Montana and other places for years now," Budinick says. "That's not a new program for us."

Plum Creek is the largest private landowner both in Montana and in the United States, with more than 6.6 million acres of timberland nationwide.

Plum Creek's latest financial reports indicate that the company expects to make between $90 million and $100 million through real estate sales in the third quarter of 2012, and that land sales through the end of the year could total as much as $325 million. How much of that revenue will come from land sold in Montana is difficult to say. Plum Creek doesn't disclose its sale figures on a state-by-state basis. Plum Creek has made $47 million on land sales nationwide so far this year.

Budinick explains Plum Creek isn't selling any more of its Montana holdings this year than it has in the past. With the recent signs, "you're probably just seeing a more visible representation of land for sale," she says. But conservationists have drawn a different conclusion: Plum Creek seems to be divesting many of its western Montana holdings.

"Like everyone else, we noticed the signs go up by Gold Creek and over by Blanchard Flats about two or three weeks ago," says Chris Bryant, with The Nature Conservancy in Missoula. "Internally, we were like, 'Huh, wonder what's going on?'"

From a conservation standpoint, Bryant believes there are a number of considerations for the community to ponder. Gold Creek, for example, is frequented by hundreds of local hunters every fall. Grizzlies pass through as well, accessing land south of Highway 200.

Plum Creek is well within its rights to sell the land, Bryant says. He hopes that new owners will continue Plum Creek's history of cooperation on conservation and public access issues.

"If you want to see bears expand, you probably need to protect the habitat they use to move through," Bryant says. "That doesn't necessarily mean you need to buy it and turn it into public land. It could just mean you need to use a lot of common sense and education with whatever uses that land sees down the road."

The Nature Conservancy and others have managed to acquire more than 400,000 acres of Plum Creek land over the years through the Montana Legacy Project and the Blackfoot Community Project. But, as Lewis Kogan with Five Valleys Land Trust puts it, conservation groups have their hands tied completing those projects. Funding is harder to come by these days. With the latest sales "We have a crisis of opportunity," Kogan says. "We just cannot get enough money."

Five Valleys partnered with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks this summer to purchase 640 acres of Plum Creek land up Deer Creek in the Swan Valley. Conservationists trumpeted the deal, but there's more to the story.

"We'd hoped to partner with FWP to acquire over 2,000 acres of extremely high-value habitat," Kogan says. "We started out working with Plum Creek trying to buy that, but it just turned out that sufficient funding wasn't available."

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Jay Kolbe recently raised an eyebrow over a 3,200-acre spread advertised near Blanchard Flats. In evaluating nearby subdivision proposals in the past, Kolbe says the agency has highlighted the area's importance as a wildlife corridor and as prime winter range for elk and deer. FWP has already responded to human-bear conflicts near Clearwater Junction.

"Everything from grizzly bear to wolverine have been seen moving through that corridor," Kolbe says, "so any additional development within that area is surely going to impact its function."

What Kolbe and others find so alarming isn't that Plum Creek is selling its land. It's that the latest crop of sales appear larger than anything the company has executed in the past, and they worry that such sales could open the way to subdivisions that may not be compatible with wildlife.

"These are the largest non-conservation out-sales that I can remember Plum Creek doing in the last 10 or 15 years," Kolbe says. "I can't think of other large blocks in this 3,000- to 5,000-acre size that have gone up for private sale to anyone but groups like The Nature Conservancy."

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