Hundreds of people who live in and around the Clearwater River watershed have spoken up about the contentious, years-in-the-making Seeley Lake Regional Plan. Now, threatened species like grizzly bears and bull trout have been given a voice, too.
In the 11th hour of the Missoula Board of County Commissioners' (BCC) deliberations over the growth policy, the county's office of Rural Initiatives last week recommended lowering zoning density limits to protect sensitive wildlife. The move could potentially further restrict the ability of Plum Creek Timber Co.—the largest private landowner in the region, the state and the country—to build homes on its timberlands in the area.
The recommendation comes after Rural Initiatives earlier this month received comments from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) all expressing concerns about Plum Creek's April 19 proposal, which concentrates development around Placid Lake. The company owns about 35 percent, or 83,000 acres, of the 235,535-acre planning region. It owns approximately 52 percent of the private land.
Lolo National Forest Supervisor Debbie Austin sent a letter to the county stating that the forest's preference is "to have no development in uninhabited areas."
"The lands in the Placid Lake block and the checkerboard matrix to the west are especially important," Austin wrote. "The proposed development as displayed in the recent map from Plum Creek would make it more challenging to develop long-term conservation and recovery planning for bull trout, lynx, and grizzly bears."
Chris Servheen, FWS's grizzly bear recovery coordinator, sent the county a recent study on the impacts of housing on grizzly survival.
"Sprawl developments into previously undeveloped habitats will eventually displace sensitive wildlife like grizzly bears...," Servheen tells the Indy. "This trend will eventually get to the point that sensitive wildlife can no longer live in such areas. No one knows the exact density of rural development that will make these lands unsuitable for sensitive wildlife. We do know that the trajectory of such increasing development will eventually eliminate these sensitive species, if it continues at the present pace."
In addition, FWP Regional Wildlife Manager Mike Thompson met with Pat O'Herren, director of Rural Initiatives, to say that his agency is concerned about how residential development might impact fish and wildlife values in specific areas within the planning region.
"The agencies confirmed locations of extremely resource-rich areas, which they note as being especially vulnerable to development," O'Herren says. "However, they also noted areas where development could occur if impacts from that development are mitigated to allow the continued existence of the resources that form the foundation for the economic and cultural heritage of the area."
In light of the agencies' comments, Rural Initiatives recommended in its May 20 staff report the county encourage incentives to reduce or transfer development rights on "resource protection" lands (the vast majority of which are owned by Plum Creek). It also proposed re-designating lands south of Placid Lake, along Game Ridge and along the Clearwater River to allow lower building densities.
Plum Creek, however, believes agency opinions ought to carry less weight.
"The Forest Service's recommendations speak of agency preferences and agency convenience but, to our disappointment, make no mention of Plum Creek's property rights or economic interests," says Kathleen Sims, Plum Creek's director of real estate law.
Sims goes on to say that the county's four-year planning process has evolved in a way that "fundamentally alters the traditional rights of private property," threatening to "create a dangerous precedent for all Montanans." She says the company isn't prepared to comment on the details of Rural Initiatives' staff report, but laments that it marks "the first time in those four years that the commissioners or its staff have provided any written insight as to how the county might respond" to the comments, questions and proposals concerning the resource protection areas, which make up about 95 percent of the planning area.
"We will need some time to study the proposal and the underlying recent letter from USFS and e-mail to FWP that are apparently being used as the basis for potentially designating Plum Creek property as open space," Sims says.
Despite Plum Creek's objections, O'Herren says the county's proposal and Plum Creek's are "remarkably close, with a few exceptions." Those few exceptions, though, could have big implications.
Montana law allows landowners owning 50 percent or more of private lands in a planning area to protest—or essentially veto—a zoning proposal. The Seeley Lake Regional Plan itself wouldn't implement zoning, but it is a prerequisite for, and sets the limits for, future zoning. With Plum Creek owning 52 percent of the land in the planning area, it could potentially veto the implementation of zoning the current planning process promises. Plum Creek maintains that it's premature to discuss that possibility.
The BCC will discuss Rural Initiatives' recommendations at its June 9 public meeting, and is expected to make a final decision on the plan in the weeks that follow. Wildlife managers say much is riding on it.
"Rural home density," says Servheen, "is the most important factor determining if grizzly bears will live or die on the Montana landscape."