We are but a few days into 2009, the new Congress has just been sworn in, President-elect Barack Obama is still two weeks away from taking over the White House, and already change is happening. The great news Montanans received this week was the announcement by Plum Creek Timber Company, the state’s largest private landowner, that it would abandon its ill-advised attempt to finagle new, subdivision-friendly easements across U.S. Forest Service lands.
Most folks in western Montana already know the story of Plum Creek’s secret negotiations with former timber lobbyist and current Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who was given oversight of the nation’s national forests under the Bush administration. The negotiations, which have been on-going for more than two years, were intended to enable Plum Creek to expand its access easements over federal lands from the long-standing purpose of timber harvest to wide-open easements for all lawful purposes.
Huge kudos go to Missoula’s county attorney and elected officials for being the first to voice their concerns that, if the secret easements turned out to be what was suspected, they would enable Plum Creek to subdivide, sell off and develop thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of acres of forested lands, of which Plum Creek owns more than a million acres.
The result of such development would have meant taxpayers would be subsidizing Plum Creek’s development efforts by picking up the additional costs for road maintenance, law enforcement, fire protection and emergency services for the forest land developments. Moreover, the future costs of providing wildfire protection for the additional dwellings would have accrued directly to state and federal agencies already hard hit by fire-fighting costs. As recent studies have revealed, the price for protecting buildings is far higher than the per-acre costs of wildland firefighting.
Congratulations are also in order for Montana’s U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who didn’t wait for the easements to become effective before launching an investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office into the secret negotiations. Tester’s actions, without question, were a significant factor in Plum Creek’s decision. Although the corporation still considers the altered easements in the public’s benefit, Plum Creek CEO Rick Holley wrote in a letter to Missoula County that “given the lack of receptivity, we have decided not to go forward.”
But there are many other likely factors in Plum Creek’s decision. Leading those factors would obviously be the collapse of the housing market and concurrent widespread economic recession, which have severely impacted the pace of development throughout the nation. Until recently Montana’s real estate market dodged the worst of the economic collapse and plenty of speculators were hot to sell Montana to the highest bidders while Montanans watched helplessly as our prime agricultural and forest lands were carved up into subdivisions and sold.
That trend, however, has come to an end—at least temporarily. Already approved subdivisions in the Gallatin, Helena, Missoula and Flathead valleys are languishing, awaiting construction or, in some instances, not even putting in the most rudimentary prep work such as roads and utilities. Meanwhile, even the high-end homes so sought after by already wealthy out-of-staters are in a state of dormancy with few, if any, offers being made—sometimes despite deep discounts in the asking prices.
Not the least of the factors that may have influenced the Plum Creek decision is the proposed massive sell-off of their lands to the federal and state governments under the so-called Legacy Project being promoted by Montana’s other U.S. senator, Max Baucus, and a number of other high-profile politicos and groups within the state. Under that proposal, Plum Creek would receive somewhere around a half-billion dollars in federal, state and private funds, and still be able to log the lands for another decade or so—a pretty sweet deal by any corporate standard.
But if the easement deal angered the Democratic-controlled Congress and President Obama, that half-billion could easily get derailed—especially considering the significantly more pressing problems facing the nation right now. Given that scenario, it’s not a stretch to figure out that Plum Creek decided a bird almost-in-the-hand, with the Legacy Project, would be worth a lot more than a bird in the bush, with the subdivision and development uncertainties. And of course the idea of fighting local governments as well as Congress and the administration only provided impetus to weigh the potential outcomes and go with the path of least resistance and greater reward.
Finally, being in the timber industry after all, Plum Creek may, in fact, be hoping for a chunk of the pending federal bail-out money as well, and it would be in their corporate interest to smooth out relations with those who will be voting on the billions the federal government plans to spend in the very near future as economic stimulus.
Ironically, Undersecretary Rey, a dedicated servant of corporate interests like most of his fellow Bush appointees, is still hoping for the conclusion of the easement deal before he gets the boot come January 20. Rey was more than ready to sign the papers before leaving office and even this week called Plum Creek’s decision to abandon the effort “not good news for the federal government or the public at large.” Luckily for Montanans—and Americans in general—this is hopefully the last we’ll hear from Rey for many years to come and he can go back to lobbying for the timber industry.
But while the Plum Creek decision is great news for Montanans, it leaves open the question of whether the company will continue to pursue its controversial expanded easements across state trust lands, many of which have already been filed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) under Director Mary Sexton. Since Plum Creek decided not to go forward with the easements across federal lands, it would be prudent for Schweitzer to reconsider DNRC’s actions and bring some much-needed change at the state level as well.
Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.