August 27, 2008

Mixed Emotions at Montana Legacy Project Meetings

By Cramer, John

LOLO - The Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land 'and the Plum Creek Timber Co., received praise but also some pointed questions the past two nights during public meetings about the Montana Legacy Project in Lolo and Seeley Lake. Many people praised the general intent of the project, which has been billed as the largest conservation land purchase deal in U.S. history.

But some also sought specific details that project officials repeatedly said had not yet been determined or that were a private matter between the timber baron and two conservation groups.

"This all sounds good, but I don't want to give so much and get so little" if the land has been degraded by clear cutting, and Plum Creek isn't required to set aside restoration money, Wendy Sturgis said at Thursday's meeting at the Lolo Community Center.

Several people expressed concern about Plum Creek's logging practices.

Others supported the project, but said they wished more details were available.

"Even if this deal is less than perfect, it's still better" than having the land developed, said Sterling Miller, who was among about 25 people at the Lolo meeting.

The Legacy project, which was announced June 30, involves Plum Creek selling 320,000 of its forest acres in western Montana for $510 million to the two conservation groups over the next three years.

The deal is meant to prevent large-scale development, while allowing some logging and preserving wildlife habitat, public recreation access and a rural way of life on a working landscape.

In short, it would largely preserve the status quo, allowing gradual change rather than a dramatic shift seen in many regions of the West, where once-bucolic communities have become expensive resort towns and home sites have sprawled deeper into the forest.

The Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land and Plum Creek are holding a series of public meetings this summer in an effort to explain the project, gather suggestions and build rural community support for the deal, which would require $250 million in tax dollars and another $260 million in private donations. Meetings were held last week in Evaro and Condon.

On Wednesday, when some 75 people at the Seeley Lake Community Center sought specific details about the Legacy proposal, project officials repeatedly said they wouldn't or couldn't discuss them.

"Please excuse us, but we're still working out some of the details," said Caroline Byrd of the Nature Conservancy at Wednesday's meeting. "This is a work in progress. We want to be open, but it's still a moving target until it's not a moving target."

A mix of year-round residents and second-home owners attended the Seeley Lake meeting.

"We're out here going - what" are the specifics, said Sidney Burgess of Placid Lake. "If it seems like too good of a deal, it might not be. Be careful. Be vigilant."

Project officials said the public wasn't included in the negotiations because the deal was a business matter between private entities and because Plum Creek was a publicly traded company.

"There was too much flux in the negotiations" until recently that only would have confused the public and bogged down the deal, Byrd said. And things may still change.' We're bringing the public in at the first possible point and we want to take this private deal forward in a way the public wants."

Doug Harkin, who spoke Thursday at the Lolo meeting, praised the project but urged the stakeholders to be cautious and "transparent" in order to gain public support.

"I think we all smell a rat" when matters of public interest are discussed behind closed doors, Harkin said. "If you're transparent and tell us what you're up to, that's good."

Byrd said project officials will be transparent now that public funds are in play and the U.S. Forest Service, state government agencies and private conservation buyers will discuss who will ultimately own and manage the lands.

Audience questions both nights included why the public wasn't involved in the negotiations, why some lands were included and some weren't and how much timber Plum Creek would receive.

People also wanted to know who would ultimately own the lands and whether an independent appraisal had been done so the public wasn't getting saddled with overpriced lands that had been degraded by clear cutting.

Project officials said the Legacy deal grew out of efforts in the Swan and Blackfoot valleys over the past decade to buy large blocks of Plum Creek timberlands that the company is selling for development.

They said they started negotiations more than a year ago, signed a purchase agreement shortly before the project was announced June 30 and expect to finalize the deal in a few weeks.

They sought to reassure the audience that their suggestions would be taken seriously and were an important part of implementing the project once it has been finalized.

Project officials had specific answers to some questions:

* The U.S. Forest Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation regulations would apply to any land those agencies receive.

* Wealthy donors who contribute to the project's fundraising campaign couldn't buy the lands.

* Habitat conservation plans that Plum Creek previously agreed to would continue to protect corridors for grizzly bears and other wildlife.

* The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land would pay property taxes on the land while they own it. Plum Creek currently pays about $100,000 in property taxes.

Project officials said the land has been periodically logged for more than a century, but that it is in good shape and not a clear- cut "moonscape" as some people have claimed.

They said the amount of timber that Plum Creek would receive at market prices over the next 10 to 15 years under the project's fiber supply agreement has not been determined, but that only sustainable harvesting monitored by third-party certifiers would be allowed.

Walt Hill, a member of the Seeley Lake Community Council, said Wednesday he was excited about the project, but that "if Plum Creek gets half a billion dollars," the company should be required to set aside the interest on 10 percent of its profits from the deal and to spend that money on local communities' infrastructure, such as schools, roads and utilities.

Local governments, residents, environmentalists and others have expressed concern about the Plum Creek selling off timberlands for residential development, which require taxpayers to pay for urban services and firefighting crews in new forested neighborhoods.

If the Legacy project funding comes together as expected, Plum Creek would receive $200 million by the end of this year, another $200 million by the close of 2009 and $110 million when, the deal is completed in December 2010.

More information is available at

Copyright The Missoulian Aug 1, 2008

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