Parallel tracks: Pots, kettles and Plum Creek’s easements

Here comes the strange tale of Plum Creek’s easements with both the federal and state government. These easements will enable the company to turn former timberland into high-end subdivisions and will require significant expenditures of local and state funds as Plum Creek divvies up its enormous profits.

As most folks in western Montana know, Missoula County first raised the warning flags when it found out that U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, a former timber lobbyist who was appointed to his current position by President Bush, was holding secret meetings with Plum Creek to, as Rey put it, “clarify” the easements the former timber giant holds across hundreds of miles of Forest Service lands. 

The core of the county’s concern lies in the 1999 transformation of Plum Creek Timber Company, which had inherited millions of acres of former railroad land grant property, to a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT), which basically provides tax-free status for land sales. Plum Creek then began its quest to sell off the western land it had clearcut during the ’80s when its board made the decision to “liquidate” the corporation’s timber assets.

Plum Creek is the single largest landowner in the state, with about 1.2 million acres, and concerns over the implications of providing fire protection, police and emergency services to new remote forest subdivisions—and the cost of doing so—drove Missoula County to use the federal Freedom of Information Act to seek information on the discussions between Rey and Plum Creek. When Rey refused to release the details of the negotiations, Sen. Jon Tester requested a General Accounting Office (GAO) investigation into the matter, which is pending.

In the meantime, Sen. Max Baucus, Montana’s other senator, was busy inserting a provision into the 2008 Farm Bill to buy about 300,000 acres of Plum Creek land for a cool half-billion dollars. As Baucus wrote in a recent mailing, the land acquisition deal was not associated with the easements. Montanans would be better off if only that was true, but as it turns out, the land, easements and money are hopelessly intertwined.

To complicate the matter, another timber industry lobbyist turned political appointee, Bud Clinch, began a parallel process at the end of Gov. Marc Racicot’s term that continued through Gov. Judy Martz’s term.  Since he was director of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), part of the sweet deal Clinch gave his timber pals was to change Plum Creek’s easements across state lands to enable the subdivision and sale of Plum Creek’s property. Plum Creek needed to widen its former 40-foot logging road easements to 60 feet in order to accommodate utilities and, most importantly, to comply with subdivision regulations.

In 2004, near the end of Martz’s single term as governor, Clinch merely slid the “restated and amended” easements across her desk to be signed and whisked them off to be recorded. Only one little problem with the whole deal: Clinch neglected to obtain the approval of the state’s Land Board, which oversees the uses of all state-owned lands, so the easements were illegal.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer then stepped into office, pledging a “New Day” that would change the practices of the last 16 years of Republican administrations. With Schweitzer came an opportunity to take a hard look at the Plum Creek easements, since they had to come back before the Land Board for approval. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

Instead, Mary Sexton, the new director of DNRC, told the Land Board in February 2007 that the Plum Creek easements were “something we have inherited,” explained that they had not properly been approved by the Land Board, and said, “We realized the error and have been working with Plum Creek Timber to rectify the issue.”

What Sexton didn’t tell the Land Board was that changing the easements from 40 feet to 60 feet would enable the subdivision and sale of massive tracts of Plum Creek land and create a host of fiscal and environmental problems for local and state government. Sexton also didn’t mention the fact that the state was using old environmental analyses that noted Plum Creek’s intent to subdivide its land and the need for 60-foot easements to meet regulations, but failed to analyze the impacts the Plum Creek subdivisions would likely cause.

Sexton, who had previously testified at the state legislature regarding the millions of dollars the state was being forced to spend to protect homes built in the wildland-urban interface from wildfires, mentioned none of those concerns to the Land Board members, Schweitzer, Attorney General Mike McGrath, Secretary of State Brad Johnson, State Auditor John Morrison and Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch. Instead, Sexton simply asserted: “This particular easement is in the Swan and there will be others to come, there are other easements that had the old 40-foot right-of-way and need to be amended and restated.” Without further discussion by Land Board members, McCulloch made the motion to approve the easement and it passed unanimously. 

The result is now before us. The state, by granting the wider easements without further review—which it legally could have done—has exacerbated its firefighting problems and costs to protect Plum Creek’s forest subdivisions. County governments and local taxpayers will be on the hook for the panoply of services such far-flung residents will require.  And the Plum Creek land Baucus hoped to purchase through a combination of federal, state and private dollars may well cost more since it can now be appraised as residential, not timber, land.

The ironic part is that Montana’s politicians correctly jumped on Rey and Plum Creek for their secret negotiations and the impacts they will cause, but ignored the identical impacts the state’s easements enabled. The end result is dismal. While the state pot calls the federal kettle black, Montana taxpayers get hosed and Plum Creek laughs all the way to the bank.
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