Closed-Door Deal Could Open Land In Montana
Saturday, July 5, 2008
MISSOULA, Mont. -- The Bush administration is preparing to ease the way for the nation's largest private landowner to convert hundreds of thousands of acres of mountain forestland to residential subdivisions.
The deal was struck behind closed doors between Mark E. Rey, the former timber lobbyist who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, and Plum Creek Timber Co., a former logging company turned real estate investment trust that is building homes. Plum Creek owns more than 8 million acres nationwide, including 1.2 million acres in the mountains of western Montana, where local officials were stunned and outraged at the deal.
"We have 40 years of Forest Service history that has been reversed in the last three months," said Pat O'Herren, an official in Missoula County, which is threatening to sue the Forest Service for forgoing environmental assessments and other procedures that would have given the public a voice in the matter.
The deal, which Rey said he expects to formalize next month, threatens to dramatically accelerate trends already transforming the region. Plum Creek's shift from logging to real estate reflects a broader shift in the Western economy, from one long grounded in the industrial-scale extraction of natural resources to one based on accommodating the new residents who have made the region the fastest-growing in the nation.
Environmentalists, to their surprise, found that timber and mining were easier on the countryside.
"Now that Plum Creek is getting out of the timber business, we're kind of missing the loggers," said Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit that studies land management in the West. "A clear-cut will grow back, but a subdivision of trophy homes, that's going to be that way forever.
"It's kind of the ugly face of the new economy."
Rey said he, too, laments the ascension of "McMansions" over working forest, but he insisted that the law obliged him to accommodate Plum Creek's request for clarification of its rights to cross public land. Rey emphasized that during the private negotiations, Forest Service lawyers leveraged promises from Plum Creek to moderate the impact, including mandating "fire-wise" measures to reduce the danger from summer wildfires.
Under the new agreement, logging roads running into areas controlled by Plum Creek could be paved -- and would thrum with the traffic of eight to 12 vehicle trips per day to and from each home, according to O'Herren. Critics say that will further imperil grizzly bears, lynxes and other endangered species in the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, a region of rugged peaks, glacier-carved valleys, and sparkling rivers and lakes that straddles the border between Montana and Canada -- and that in parts remains as Lewis and Clark found it.
"For us, this is kind of an arterial bleed, and we're either going to get a handle on it or not," said Melanie Parker, executive director of Northwest Connections, an environmental group in the Swan Valley, 60 miles northeast of Missoula.
Parker recently eased an SUV through Glacier Ridge, a nascent subdivision marked by freshly scraped lots and sumptuous views of the Mission Range on one side, the Swan Range on the other and the still-sparsely populated valley in between. The spring-fed bottomland is prime bear habitat where her husband, Tom, a hunting guide, saw his first grizzly.
"Look at that, Tom!" Parker yelped, after a climb up a knoll revealed a three-story log home, still wrapped in Tyvek HomeWrap insulation. "They're like mushrooms. You get a few sunny days and they pop right up."