If Plum Creek shuffles some papers in Evaro, a million Kazakhstani goats won’t produce cheese for three lunar cycles. That’s what we heard anyway. Goats are notoriously sensitive to the loss of old-growth forest—also, like hippies, they wear beards.

Over the past week, we’ve encountered a heap of conjecture about Plum Creek’s June 30 dirt deal with the federal government and two conservation groups. When finalized, the $510 million sale should keep 223,400 acres of Missoula County out of developer’s hands for good. Chip-chip-hurrah, right? Well, those always-vigilant types took about .1 seconds to wonder what the deal does to alleviate Plum Creek of its surely taxing veto powers on zoning changes.

As a railroad real estate trust, Plum Creek owns about 58 percent of private land in Missoula County, according to the Office of Planning and Grants, and that entitles the company under Montana law to kill any zoning scheme the commissioners put forward. The concern is that Plum Creek can still prevent any local measures to keep idiots from building houses in places where fire trucks can’t get. While county officials love this latest deal, their saving grace remains on the wings.

“Nothing has changed at this point,” says Rural Initiatives director Pat O’Herren, who points out the sale doesn’t mean squat for zoning plans until all the land is transferred in 2010. In the meantime, Plum Creek still controls six out of nine zoning districts in the county with private land deals to developers constantly underway. “They’re selling about half of their lands as far as we know.”

Still plum confused? Don’t feel bad. It’s actually a fairly murky business and the Devil’s deep in the details, where he’s safe from Midwestern preachers and folks with a lot of questions about how a need for railroad tie material led to the ultimate zoning power. We also understand that bastard still owes Jerry Garcia $20 dollars.

Taking the zoning clause off the books would make the whole business a lot simpler, and that’s something a few county commissioners statewide have been jawing about. At a June 27 media luncheon, recently retired county executive Ann Mary Dussault mentioned that reforming the code would be the top legislative priority this year for Missoula County. New XO Dale Bickell confirmed that the county would push to remove the veto clause, but cautions of a rough road ahead.

Speaking of rough roads, after the fallout from its controversial decision to discuss road easements with Agriculture undersecretary Mark Rey behind closed doors, Plum Creek wants a little credit for this latest conservation deal. How about this, guys? We’ll go back into this little smoke-filled room, talk it over and let you know in about six to 14 months.
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