Signs of the times 

What are Plum Creek's plans for Lolo Pass?

Would you like to purchase some land near Lolo Hot Springs? A sign advertises the following: “Proposed Powell Creek Subdivision.” The 160+ acres, slated for subdivision into four developments, and formerly owned by Plum Creek Timber Co., now belong to a corporation with a 918 area code—Oklahoma. A Montana real estate agent says so. He is taking names, though not offers, yet. Here’s another question: Would you like to ski the Lee Creek trails at Lolo Pass, the same trails you have skied for years? Sorry, no can do—well, not with the land owner’s permission anyway. Another sign explains why. It’s a small sheet of paper taped to the front desk at the Lolo Pass Visitor Information Center, and it reads, in part: “These trails cross private property and the owner no longer wishes to promote the use of this area.” The property owner? Plum Creek.

Each year, over 50,000 people visit Lolo Pass. Bob Clark, local conservation organizer with the Sierra Club, wants them to know that these two signs could foreshadow the future of the area: additional closings to the public—skiers, fishers, hunters, berry-pickers, hikers and crystal-hunters. More land sliced and sold and developed. If these small changes do suggest a trend, the future could bring less open space, the loss of public access to lands, and disorder for land and wildlife management.

Jerry Sorenson, a land use manager for Plum Creek, says that though the company has sold the Powell Meadows land, other lands in the Lolo Pass area on the Montana side are not, at this time, for sale. So why the recent Lee Creek closing? Sorenson cites an easement purchase, as does Sharon Sweeney, public affairs for Lolo National Forest. A purchase from Plum Creek almost two years ago gave the public access to the historic Lolo corridor but not the Lee Creek trails, says Sweeney. She believes the reason her office just now decided to stop promoting the Lee trails with skiers and to remove posted signs is because of work schedules. “We may not have had it built into our program of work for the [2001-02] year,” says Sweeney.

Plum Creek’s recent history, though, gives cause to question if there are other reasons behind the closing. In 1999, the company restructured as a Real Estate Investment Trust. This structure allows the company a “tax-efficient” way to buy, develop, manage and sell real estate. Later, it created a new position: vice president of real estate and strategic business development. Nearby, it started selling its land in the Swan Valley.

“Take the company at face value,” says Clark. “[Plum Creek is] a real estate investment trust.” Plum Creek shareholders might expect the company to sell land. And it owns plenty: over eight million acres in the U.S. A news report posted on the company’s Web site projects its 2003 real estate earnings nationally will be between $80 million and $100 million. In Montana, Plum Creek owns about 1.4 million acres, much of it interlocked with national forest land. And it isn’t inconceivable that a company that profits from highly-valued land would sell acreage near the historical Lewis and Clark—also called the Lolo, and Nez Perce—trail. Warranted or not, the Lewis and Clark bicentennial has created nationwide hype.

The future of land in the Lolo Pass area may or may not fall in step with the company’s track record. But suppose, for a minute, that it does. First of all, private owners won’t necessarily ensure public access. Others, like skiers wishing to glide down Lee Creek, might find themselves reading a sign that doesn’t necessarily forbid entry, but doesn’t promote it, either. Being curbed from using Lee Creek hasn’t upset skiers yet, says Kaylan Minor, who works the front desk at the visitor center. They’ve been good-natured, but they write little notes, too.

“If you read our comment box,” says Minor, “every skier says they want more trails.”

Secondly, land ownership is staggered in the area. The land is owned in a checkerboard pattern—one square mile for the public, one square mile for Plum Creek. The map unfurled with a checkerboard in 1864 when the government gave land to the railroads, including Burlington. Eventually, Burlington became Plum Creek. And now, the checkerboard creates complications. Jack Ward Thomas, former chief of the U.S. Forest Service, teaches at the University of Montana. He is not ambivalent about checkerboard blocks: “The son-of-a-bitch that invented checkerboards ought to be sitting in hell on coals roasting. For a very long time,” he says. “Let’s face it: ecological systems don’t come in squares.”

Joni Packard, district manger for the Powell Ranger Station, doesn’t compliment the pattern either. “It basically fragments the habitat,” she says. “It definitely makes it a challenge in terms of being able to manage the ecosystems as a whole.”

Another checkerboard challenge is managing illegal use of off-road vehicles. The Forest Service isn’t able to manage the current illegal activity, says Clark, though he believes they are trying in most cases.

Illegal use may not be Plum Creek’s responsibility. The company can surely, lawfully, do what it wants with the land it owns. It can log it, sell it, develop it, and paint it purple if it gets the notion; the land belongs to Plum Creek. But Clark is among those who believe the land was never intended for Plum Creek. It should have reverted back to the public when, in the late 19th century, the railroad was laid elsewhere. He elaborates in an e-mail: “Don’t forget that Plum Creek gets to double dip before releasing ownership. First clear-cut the forest for $, then sell the cleared land for $.”

Plum Creek has sold some land and easements back to the public, in the guise of conservation groups and land trusts, with private and federal funds making the purchases possible. There is talk, says Sweeney, of more purchases, but she knows of nothing specific in the Lolo Pass area. And finances are prohibitive.

Developers and those with visions of lakeside properties, though, are ready to buy. They are some of the many signs to Clark that the landscape may continue to change. He has seen survey stakes at Idaho’s Moose Lake near the Montana border; Plum Creek, he says, contends that they are for road building and timber harvest. Clark also knows of an Idaho resident who attempted to purchase 80 acres on the lake. Incidentally, that Idaho resident is the same person the real estate agent lists as the contact for the Oklahoma corporation that purchased the Powell Meadows land. His name is Bill Athens, and he couldn’t be reached for comment. But the sign at Powell Meadows speaks: there, four subdivisions on the horizon

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