Montana’s secret weapon: Saving the state from secret Plum Creek deals

Missoula County commissioners have been up in arms for months now over secret negotiations between Plum Creek Timber Co. and the U.S. Forest Service to grant easements across federal lands so Plum Creek can turn its former timberlands into subdivisions. The problem, in a nutshell, is that the county and state will likely wind up paying for the additional services that more development in the forested areas will require, such as firefighting, road maintenance and noxious weed control. Montana may have hidden hammers, however, in its access policies and right-of-way easements with Plum Creek Timber to cross state-owned lands.

It should come as no surprise that Mark Rey, a former timber lobbyist turned U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary under President Bush, wants to hold closed meetings with his buddies from Plum Creek.

For his part, Rey says his year-long meetings with Plum Creek are merely “clarifying” the terms of access agreements on millions of acres of federal land originally granted to the railroads more than a century ago. Those lands, which are checker-boarded with state and federal lands, have been passed down through succession in interest to Plum Creek, a former timber subsidiary of Burlington-Northern Railroad that re-organized in 1999 as a real estate investment trust and is now selling the properties.

Anyone who has ever driven a primitive forest logging road knows that many are minimally constructed, often on steep, highly unstable side-hills, and designed primarily for limited use by heavy equipment. The idea of suddenly turning them into access roads for new subdivisions scattered throughout the forest—for use by school buses, soccer moms and emergency services vehicles—seems ludicrous. But consider this: Last year Plum Creek made about $330 million from selling land. And if it pulls off the access coup with the feds, maintaining those roads are no longer Plum Creek’s problem—which is why county commissioners are so concerned over just whose problem it becomes and who winds up getting stuck with the costs, impacts and liabilities.

If you’ve been in Montana for the last decade, you know we are having hotter, drier summers that are conducive to large wildfires—especially as bugs and disease kill huge sections of trees in formerly green forests. One of the problems increasingly faced by firefighters is trying to protect homes and buildings located in “the wildland-urban interface.” Simply put, people like to build homes surrounded by trees. But when the forest burns, much of the time, effort and money expended by the state, counties and federal government go to protect houses rather than to fight fires.

Montana’s legislature has already convened an interim committee to study the problem, the state’s firefighting budget has been ratcheted up by tens of millions of dollars, and just about everyone agrees that having more people build in the woods will create more problems and more expense for taxpayers. But even as Montanans wrestle with this huge and growing issue, Plum Creek’s plans promise to toss gas, almost literally, on the fire.

So what can we do about it? Sen. Jon Tester has already tried to force the Forest Service to release the information about the secret Plum Creek talks and include the public in the discussion—but Rey rebuffed him. Closer to home, however, Montana’s Land Board holds tremendous power over the right-of-way agreements that Plum Creek needs to cross state lands and access its holdings.

For years now, the state and Plum Creek have exchanged easements to allow the harvesting of timber holdings, primarily through the Trust Lands Management Division of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC). In the last few weeks, however, those access agreements have drawn increasing interest for two reasons: to make sure the state isn’t compounding its costs and firefighting problems by actually enabling Plum Creek’s subdivision scheme; and to see just what control the state may have over proposed usage for Plum Creek’s easements. As it turns out, state policy and the easements issued to Plum Creek contain provisions that may prove useful, both practically and politically.

Take this section from Montana’s “Reciprocal Access and Easement Exchange Policy,” effective September 16, 2006. “Final Review and Approval by the Board: When the Department [DNRC] and applicant have generated all information necessary for the Board’s consideration, the information will be presented to the Board for review and determination whether the proposal is advantageous to the state. It is the Board’s duty to disapprove any application that, in its opinion, would be disadvantageous to the state.”

Adding tens of millions of dollars in additional firefighting costs to protect Plum Creek’s new woodland subdivisions could certainly be deemed “disadvantageous” to the state. Likewise, while the easements to Plum Creek are for “all lawful purposes,” they are “subject to reasonable rules and regulations of the State of Montana and Board of Land Commissioners.”

The Land Board, which is comprised of Governor Brian Schweitzer, Attorney General Mike McGrath, Secretary of State Brad Johnson, State Auditor John Morrison and Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch, can formulate and adopt rules and regulations regarding the uses to which state lands may be put. These public officials would be hard-pressed to ignore the public’s growing concerns–especially since most of them are running for re-election.

Plum Creek and the Forest Service may certainly choose to continue their secret negotiations, but now they may be wrestling not just with the counties, but also with the state, the Land Board and a host of citizens howling over ever-increasing costs and potential impacts. Alternatively, they could do the sane and logical thing and open the negotiations and the terms of the easements to the public. Should the company and feds decide to continue to play hardball, seems like it’s time for Montana to bust out our hidden hammers.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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