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Missoula County demands specific Plum Creek files

Who’s anxious to see a big fat stack of cost-share files? Locally, at least one person: Deputy Missoula County Attorney D. James McCubbin.

For several months now, McCubbin’s been hard after records detailing closed-door talks between U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey and executives from Plum Creek, a real estate trust and western Montana’s largest landholder. Missoula County wants to stop the company’s nearly successful bid to update its U.S. Forest Service road easements—documents granted back when Plum Creek made its money through logging. As the reorganized trust now moves to sell or develop at least some of its vast rural holdings, local county governments are stressing over how to provide services for new homes far off the grid.

There’s a lot at stake and many feel the Forest Service still isn’t operating in plain view.

“All of the information we’ve seen confirms what we suspected,” McCubbin says. “The ball is in Mr. Rey’s court. He can either insist upon doing something that doesn’t make sense or he can stop.”

To try and open the process up, Missoula County filed a June Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Forest Service for easement documents. Six months of back and forth wrangling over the contested information continues to this day, even as Rey prepares to sign off with the rest of the Bush administration.

“Our issue is with the public process,” says Jean Curtiss, Missoula Board of County Commission chair. “Plum Creek’s a private company; they can do whatever they want behind closed doors. But not the Forest Service.”

For whatever reason, the federal agency now appears slow to hand over one particular batch of documents—cost-share files showing Plum Creek’s contribution to the construction and maintenance of public timber roads. While far from the hot nonfiction read of the holiday season, the cost-share files, McCubbin suspects, might speak to more than their certainly dry literal content.

Lolo National Forest Supervisor Deborah Austin—the person responsible for providing many of the documents McCubbin wants—says her staff continues to process the request. However, she contends the noticeable delay stems from a lack of resources rather than a desire to hide relevant documentation from Missoula County officials.

“It’s a lot of information,” says Austin. “We don’t have additional staff to deal with the request. It’s not as easy as it might seem on the surface.”

If the county is overly suspicious, it’s not without cause. Like many local politicians across western Montana, Curtiss and the other commissioners want to know if the Forest Service is doing Plum Creek any favors as the longtime logging outfit shifts business models. Low numbers in the cost-share files would lend veracity to the allegation that Rey—a wood products industry lobbyist prior to his 2001 executive appointment—tried to give Plum Creek a deal while nobody was looking.

McCubbin got a taste of what information the files might ultimately glean in a partial disclosure by the Lolo National Forest in late October. He now wants to see the rest of it.

“I think these files really reflect on the scope of these easements, and reconfirm that there was never any contemplation of these easements being used for more than timber harvesting,” says McCubbin. “These are the documents that will fully reveal what everybody’s intentions were entering in.”

Intentions may prove critical if the whole deal ever lands in court. Plum Creek argues existing easement language gives it the right to use the roads to whatever end. Whether or not a judge would  agree might depend on what the drafters of the easements originally intended, especially if the documents’ language itself is too vague to render a judicial decision. Low figures in the cost-share agreements would arguably belie the notion that the original easements intended for more than the occasional logging truck.

The Independent asked Plum Creek officials and its attorney on the easement issue, Steven Quarles, if they had an initial take on the county’s interpretation. As of press time, the company had not offered a response.

Recently, the complex controversy expanded beyond Missoula County. While local officials pressure the Lolo National Forest for easement documents, federal lawmakers like Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester are squeezing the executive branch to bring the whole deal out in the open. On Nov. 21, Tester and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., formally asked the U.S. Inspector General to investigate the Forest Service’s talks with Plum Creek.

The inquiry sprouted from an October Government Accountability Office report criticizing Rey for dismissing possible courses of action—ones where the Forest Service attempts to regulate Plum Creek.

Rey’s office did not respond to the Independent’s requests for comment other than to say it had no update on the situation. The undersecretary told the Associated Press in November he had planned to pull the trigger on the easement amendments before President-elect Barack Obama takes office on Jan. 20.

For Missoula County—at least on this front—the changing of the guard can’t happen quickly enough. Since Rey’s infamous public input presentation in Missoula last April, the perceived swagger of the sitting undersecretary and the obstruction of his agency on the Plum Creek issue have grown particularly distasteful to county officials.

“I really doubt that it’s going to happen if it doesn’t happen before Obama takes office,” says County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg. “I just think Mark Rey is more likely to be amenable to industry concerns than the environment, or local government, or any other kind of concerns, really.”
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