Timber Firm Drops Road-Use Request

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 5 -- A controversial U.S. Forest Service plan that would have made it easier to build houses in Western mountain forests was dropped Monday when the nation's largest private landowner abruptly backed off the request that sparked the issue.

Plum Creek Timber, which owns 8 million acres nationwide, withdrew its request for an explicit legal understanding that it has the right to use roads across Forest Service lands for residential development, not just for logging. The Seattle firm cited widespread opposition to the proposal it negotiated behind closed doors over two years with Forest Service chief Mark Rey.

"When we heard about the concern for further input, we said, 'Well, that makes sense,' and we apologized and set up some [public] meetings," said Kathy Budinick, a spokeswoman for Plum Creek.

Budinick said public resistance was at odds with efforts to promote Plum Creek as a good corporate citizen. Last year, the company, which owns 1.2 million acres in Montana, agreed to sell 320,000 acres of sensitive land in the state to the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land.

"We don't want a lot of people to think we're out to pave a lot of roads in Montana, because we're just not," Budinick said.

The change of heart came after news reports that Rey was preparing to push the deal through in the last days of the Bush administration, despite opposition from Montana's congressional delegation and President-elect Barack Obama.

The withdrawal was welcomed by local officials in Montana, who complained that Rey's secret negotiation undermined their efforts to contain development in the fast-growing region.

"We've actually been working with Plum Creek for some time," said Jean Curtiss, the Missoula County commissioner who received a letter from Plum Creek President Rick Holley announcing the company's withdrawal from the effort "given the lack of receptivity."

"Our whole impetus is that the Forest Service was the one who was out of line," Curtiss said. "They were the ones holding meetings without public input or public knowledge."

Environmentalists expressed delight, noting that Plum Creek's decision forestalls court fights over the issue that both sides said were inevitable. Bethanie Walder, executive director of Wildlands CPR in Missoula, noted that "socially conscious" investors in Plum Creek had initiated shareholder resolutions against the move.

"Nobody liked it," Walder said. "Especially in Montana, they've gotten a pretty serious black eye from this approach."

But in an interview, Rey maintained that Plum Creek has the right to use the roads as it sees fit. Lost along with the deal making that right explicit, he said, were concessions the company made, such as forming homeowners associations, as preferred by county governments.

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