August 2, 2008

Rey Details Possible Plum Creek Land Deal

By Jamison, Michael

KALISPELL - The map, according to Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, is both detailed and accurate, a diagram charting exactly how his controversial deal with Plum Creek Timber Co. would "lay on the land." It shows both Plum Creek and U.S. Forest Service land holdings, shows road easements across those property lines, shows timberlands now protected by conservation easements and timberlands that might be protected through a large land buyout now in the works.

"What it shows," Rey said, "is that a significant amount of Plum Creek's Montana ownership is going to be protected by conservation easements, be protected by conservation sales or be retained by the company for timber production. That's what the map tells me."

In other words, Rey's recent negotiations with the company will not, according to the map, pave the way for wholesale conversion of timberland into residential subdivision in western Montana.

That remains the concern of many, however, who learned early this spring that Rey had been meeting with the company, behind closed doors, for nearly two years.

Those meetings centered on decades-old forest road easements across Forest Service land. Many of Plum Creek's acres - some 1.2 million acres in western Montana - are interspersed with Forest Service holdings in a checkerboard pattern. Since the 1960s, the private and public neighbors have negotiated easements across each other's parcels to access logging operations.

Traditionally, the easements were considered narrow in scope - for timber hauling only. But the company - and now Rey - argue the road agreements are absolute, providing access for any purpose, including real estate development.

Not a few were alarmed by that new reading, because Plum Creek - organized as a real estate investment trust since 1999 relies increasingly on residential land sales to bolster its bottom line. And those new forested neighborhoods come at a public price - the cost of providing urban services in rural areas, for instance, or of maintaining roads, or of fighting wildfire.

Montana counties, particularly, cried foul, saying Rey's proposed amendment to the old easements would cost local taxpayers too much.

One of the first to enter the fray was Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who wrote to Rey early this spring, requesting information about the undersecretary's talks with Plum Creek. On Wednesday, Rey briefed Tester in a presentation that included not only the new map, but also a promise to deliver a long-awaited list of affected easements.

"It was a very productive meeting," Rey said. "I have not had an unproductive meeting with Senator Tester."

The presentation "gives a real sense of the order of magnitude on the ground" of the easement amendment, Rey said. It took a month to compile, and promises to "increase everyone's understanding, if not their agreement."

And it's about time, Tester said.

"For the first time ever, the Forest Service and Plum Creek sat down and showed us all the roads that would be impacted," Tester said.

That's 2,000 miles of forest road in Montana, a sprawling tangle of bumpy dirt that's difficult to imagine, even with a map.

"There are still a lot of questions," Tester said after reviewing the map. "You get answers to some questions, and then new questions pop up. The one thing that's clear, though, is that things are changing. The ownership of the forest is changing, and Plum Creek is going to be divesting lands."

Which, the senator said, makes public process and open dialogue all the more important.

"Some of this information they're providing now should've been provided two years ago," Tester said, adding that the Government Accountability Office - at his request - began an investigation this week into whether Rey's private talks with Plum Creek should, in fact, have been public.

Montana counties, among others, have argued that the environmental and economic impacts of Rey's easement amendment would be substantial, and so demand a full public process.

And while Rey disagrees on that point, he has finally submitted to a request by the counties that he supply a list of all easements affected by his plan.

"We've been scanning them, putting them on discs," he said of the easements, and will be providing those discs to both the senator and the counties in coming days.

In addition, Rey said, "we're off to meet with the counties, now."

He and his staff, as well as Forest Service officials, plan to repeat Wednesday's presentation in about seven western Montana counties, providing local leaders time to pore over the maps and ask more questions.

"Then we'll see what happens next," the undersecretary said. "I don't like to predict downstream eventualities."

But Rey did add that "however we resolve this issue, I'd like to resolve it by year's end."

By which he means the end of the Bush administration, and the end of his political tenure as Agriculture undersecretary.

Tester, however, wonders whether that will be possible, given the ongoing GAO investigation and the number of unanswered questions.

"I'm more convinced than ever," Tester said after Wednesday's meeting, "that this kind of third-party GAO investigation is important. We're going to need a real public dialogue as this process moves forward."

And while Tester applauded Rey's commitment to meet with county and state officials, the senator added he's "not comfortable with this until we get a lot more details hammered out. What the map told me is that some of the problems are probably going to be taken care of through conservation sales, but that doesn't resolve all the issues."

Issues such as whether government officials ought to negotiate major land deals with private companies outside the public process. Doing so, Tester warned, "sets an incredible precedent, and it may be a precedent that we don't want to set."

Copyright The Missoulian Jul 17, 2008

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