U.S. Senator Max Baucus announced a potentially historic private land conservation project on Friday, aimed at protecting hundreds of thousands of acres of Plum Creek forestland in western Montana from development.
The project, which has the potential to be “the largest land acquisition in American history,” will conserve critical fish and wildlife habitat, ensure continued access to public land and reduce the cost of fighting wildfire by limiting development in the so-called wildland-urban interface, Baucus said.
“We’re doing something to pass on our enduring legacy and values to our kids and grandkids,” he said.
Under the potential deal, the Trust for Public Land and The Nature Conservancy would acquire about 300,000 acres of forest land from Plum Creek Timber Co. using a new Forest Conservation Bonds provision included in the just-passed 2008 Farm Bill.
The provision, which can be attributed to Baucus, authorizes states or non-profit organizations to issue as much as $500 million in federal tax-credit bonds. Private investors buy the bonds in exchange for a federal tax credit. The states or non-profits then use some of the capital to acquire privately-held forest lands slated for potential development. The rest of the capital is invested to repay the taxes deferred on the bond.
Under the provision, half the money can be an outright federal grant. The whole forest bond program is expected to cost the federal treasury about $250 million over ten years.
While critics on Capital Hill contend the provision is a sweetheart deal for Plum Creek designed only to benefit this particular project, proponents say it creates a sorely-needed funding mechanism to protect private timberlands across the country from sale for development.
Plum Creek is the largest private landowner in the United States with over eight million acres. It is also the largest private landowner in Montana with over 1.2 million acres. In 1999, Plum Creek reorganized as a real estate investment trust (REIT) and has since begun selling its land for residential development and to public and private groups interested in conservation.
Communities across the country are struggling to secure the funding necessary to buy forest lands slated for development in order to protect public access and fish and wildlife habitat, Eric Love, the Montana director for the Trust for Public Land said. New funding mechanisms like these tax-credit bonds are essential to providing communities “a voice and a seat at the table” in discussions over the future of these lands, he said.
All the parties involved in Friday’s announcement stressed that the deal is in progress and its completion is dependent on the tax-credit bonds that the groups must still apply for. The project is also expected to include an undetermined amount of state and private dollars.
Specific parcels to be sold have not been finalized, but include land in the Swan Valley, Marshall Grade, Lolo and Fish Creek drainages. Under the forest bonds provision, at least half the land acquired must be transferred to the U.S. Forest Service. The rest will probably end up with the state or in private hands under strict conservation arrangements.
Under the tentative agreement, some of the land will remain as a working forest using sustainable forestry practices in order to maintain jobs for people who depend on these lands, Plum Creek CEO Rick Holley said.
Both conservation organizations have a long history of protecting Plum Creek forest lands in western Montana from development. The Nature Conservancy has acquired 89,000 acres in the Blackfoot River valley, land it is now reselling to state and federal agencies as well as select private owners. The Trust for Public Land has spearheaded a similar acquisition of 25,000 acres of former Plum Creek land in the Swan Valley.
Any organization in the nation intent on conserving forest land can apply for the bonds, and it’s the only known project currently in the works.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Eric Love of the Trust for Public Land. We apologize for the error.