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Baucus Seeks to Protect Plum Creek Forestlands from Development

Baucus Seeks to Protect Plum Creek Forestlands from Development

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.

About Peter Metcalf

Comments

  1. mike says:

    Good grief, saving these forests would be so expensive. Why, this effort might end up costing as much as, well, as much as two or maybe even three days of our Iraq entanglement. Can we afford it?

  2. Pamela says:

    What is Rey’s involvement with this stuff?

  3. Dave Skinner says:

    Let me get this straight. In the early 1990s, Plum Creek and other timber bigs were handed a gift by environmentalists in the form of their lawsuit driven choke-off of competing Federal timber in the Northwest wood basket.
    Soon after PCT and the other bigs did the natural, capitalistic thing and started logging their ground really hard to take advantage of a charming market, TU among others tried to sue to halt PCT operations through endangered-species listed surrogacy.
    PCT/Bigs were upset, of course, supporting ESA reform, putting Bruce Babbitt’s big stick at risk. So Bruce co-opts PCT by negotiating a rather generous Habitat Conservation Plan, taking PCT out of the pool of ESA enemies, especially because other bigs without HCP safe-harbor are now at a disadvantage should something be found on their ground….
    The HCP seems to work. Lots of roads are gated to the public, which PCT doesn’t care about anyway, it saves them maintenance money. PCT practices improve somewhat, to the point that while there sure don’t seem to be a heck of a lot of trees left, the forest is in good shape to grow more trees someday.
    But more important are two other factors. First, the litigation HCP underscored a certain level of risk in PCT’s Pacific Northwest holdings, which could at any time be enjoined in court against timber operations. Any manager not doing everything possible to get away from such risk would be fired….so how to get away? Go buy some ground with trees far away from endangered species and their courtroom defenders.
    In the meantime, Congress has left a tax loophole you can toss millions of acres through, commercial real estate investment trusts. So the smart eyeshade people in the big timber outfits say, hey, with this we can get away from a 35 percent corporate income tax and only pay 15 percent if we get rid of our mills, or make manufacturing secondary to being real estate barons!
    Never mind that REIT law encourages the assumption of debt rather than reinvestment in the company. So, float a lot of debt and control lots of ground, and to service the debt, you need to, yep, sell some to the highest bidder.
    So that happened. Some timber bigs tried to get the law changed so that integrated companies were on an equal tax footing with the REITS and the TIMO spinoffs, the last attempt failed, specifically in the Senate Finance Committee that Max Baucus chairs.
    So here we are. PCT is doing what any rational company should do when faced with such circumstances, which are pretty much the fault of Congress.
    So what is Max Baucus’s brilliant response? To reward Plum Creek with $500 million for lands that probably won’t be of benefit to its milling operations for at least 40 years? To throw money at land trusts that should be able to raise the funds themselves if their cause was so just, rather than need tax breaks to accomplish anything significant? To transfer half of former PCT ground to a paralytic Forest Service that is completely incapable of managing the land it already has in any kind of effective, comprehensive manner?
    Why in the heck aren’t these bonds being made available to the state of Montana to acquire these lands at a reasonable rate of interest so they can remain PRODUCTIVE assets that would produce money for the school trust, wood for Montana jobs, and recreation benefits for a wide range of citizens?
    Montana DNRC, like other forest-owning states, does such a better job of protecting and improving Montana forests than the federal government, it’s not even funny. That Max can’t figure that out, well, that’s even LESS funny.

  4. bear bait says:

    The Federal bailout is underway. Blackmail does work. What Baucus does not tell you is how much of the money involved will go to the Trust for Public Lands and to The Nature Conservancy for their efforts at brokering the deals. You see, Congress has set up the NGOs to financially benefit from each and every deal. A real estate broker gets 10% or less, and on big deals, way less. But TPL and TNC will get upwards to 30% or more, just a little payment for helping us out. It is the backdoor, off budget funding for special interests who play a large role in campaign financing for Green Candidates. If the press does not pay attention, this theft from the US Treasury to benefit NGOs will continue and their special interest influence on Congress will continue to rival that of trial lawyers, big pharma, big oil, and the NEA. TNC is the world’s largest non-governmental land owner. Their revenues are counted in billions of dollars a year. And it is government that has made them by allowing them to escape from paying taxes.

    My question is why would the citizenry want to buy lands only to have the land management agency of record plan on letting them burn in the near future? Chief Kimball, who already is PAYING the Wilderness Society for consultations on Wildland Fire Use, allowing them a seat at the table of policy making, is dedicated to not fighting fire wherever possible. The language that Baucus quotes says, by implication, not allowing homes lessens fire fighting costs because they don’t have a mandate to protect trees. That decision, a decision that has never gone through the NEPA process, has not been vetted in an EIS process, is USFS policy, and the law of the land for subalterns in the Agency. Planned incineration of forests to clear them of excess fuel. Yes, anything but logging, please. One has to wonder if McNamara’s ghost is running the USFS—-destroy the village to save it…destroy the forest to keep it from ever having a logger on it. That was preschool sandbox diplomacy. Evidently, we really do not ever grow beyond playground conflict resolution. And it is the Green NGOs that are promoting fire as the preferred forest fuels reduction measure.

    The Oregon Environmental Quality Commission, all members appointed by the Governor, held a hearing on proposed Mandatory Greenhouse Gas Reporting Rules in May. A real dog and pony show for the press and the public by the Dept of Environmental Quality, the parallel civil service agency. Pie charts, graphs, all their pollution producing sources divided up and assigned numerical values and responsibility. Time for questions from the public. The head of the Western Institute for the Study of the Environment presents his input, which was that the presenters had forgotten a whole pie. In 2007, 775,000 acres of wildland fire had produced an amount of carbon dioxide as great as all the man made sources. If the number of acres burned could be halved, the reduction in greenhouse gases would be 25%. Of course, when a Governor wants something from a committee he appoints, he will get it as evidenced by there not being one EQC member at the hearing. The fix is in. The hearing was a formality. Blue State government at its best.

    In my thinking, what is good about having NGOs make a pile of money brokering private lands into public domain so that they might burn unabated in the near future and produce increased greenhouse gases while I have to burn ethanol in my gas tank, pay more for food, the benefit of which is wiped out for the year in one day of major fire?

    The US becomes less able to produce wood fiber, and the largest private landowner in the US gets the government to bail them out, degraded land at that. Plum Creek will take the money and Starker exchange it (pay no capital gains taxes–1031 it) into other lands somewhere else, and all that has happened is that Baucus swept his regulatory problem under some other state’s rug, put the nugget in someone else’s pocket. How thoughtful!

    The other question that begs an answer, is that if not Plum Creeks land to use for growth and housing and the Montana Dream, then whose? Is there to be infill housing in Kalispell, Missoula? For a state without a state land use plan, it is not without notice that all have an idea of how the Big Dog should behave, but the lesser dogs have no controls, and are doing the ecological damage, paving over the meadows, fracturing the forests. So neutered Montana, the State without cajones, has to have National NGOs and their Blue Lackey of the Senate call on the Feds to bail them out with other people’s money. Have you no shame?

  5. mike says:

    All joking aside, I would just as soon they spend my money on rescuing these lands than to waste on another fiasco that people like Skinner or Bearbait might support. Sometimes you just have to invest in retrieving past mistakes and try to just clear trash like Plum Creek and Rio Tinto off the board.

  6. Dave Skinner says:

    Now, Mike,
    How is the FOREST SERVICE going to “rescue” these lands? Let them burn? Or are you a land-trust employee, looking forward to helping cherry pick the good stuff on the taxpayer nickle?
    Bond the lands to the respective states, or perhaps in the case of lands within treaty boundaries, the TRIBES. Enough colonialism, either from the left or the right.

  7. mike says:

    Isn’t it supposed to be “nickel” in this case, Dave? But, while we are at it, I need you to confirm or correct something that I have been hearing. Is it true that, after all your frenetic wanderings in the service of extreme nationalist groups, you are now a paid propagandist for a foreign corporation that seeks to “shape” public opinion in the US in order to gain access, access for profit for a foreign corporation and its foreign investors, to our natural resources, including the natural resources on our public lands? If that is true, then could a case be made that there is a risk that the things that you post, every comment, may actually a crafted commercial or even political message from a foreign group?

  8. Dave Skinner says:

    Mike,
    That’s all you can stick me on, that I mis-spelled (not really, there are two historic forms) nickel? On a blog?
    You need to lay off the special Kool Aid. In toto, your last comment is the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard…except maybe it would be nice if the paid part were true. But it ain’t.
    Be watching closely for my buddies in the black helicopters.

  9. Marion says:

    There are so many sweet deals made by politicians and “non profits” that the people of the US are going to wake up and find out we have to pay taxes to the greens. Actually I guess we do now, they generally get all of their “expenses” paid back in lawsuits won in selected courts. What I would like to know is how they keep their non profit status, they do no research, do not seem to donate to any of the species they want saved. Some do buy up land, lots of land, like the TNC. They file lots of lawsuits, so they must pay a lot of lawyers, but they generally file in a court where they expect to win, so they are paid for their “expenses”.

  10. steve kelly says:

    So, the “Greens” are winning with Baucus’s help? Smoke another one! The Forest Service isn’t “letting” forests burn, they are logging, thinning and lighting them on fire, hoping they’ll burn. Fire-related projects account for nearly 50% of their budget.

  11. bear bait says:

    Plum Creek is winning with Baucus’ help. PCT will get your money to sell lands to the public, state, local or federal. And then they will get to use that money to buy more land, elsewhere, without paying taxes on their gain, with Baucus’ help. And Rey has been in town making sure the skids are greased, the USFS is doing their due diligence, and PCT is pleased.

    The Wildland Fire Use deal is ongoing, outside of review, purview, oversight, any of the NEPA or EIS procedures. And with NGO approval if only because the super litigant NGO The Wilderness Society is being paid to provide advice on what needs to burn, and how much, and where.

    As for USFS logging, I don’t see that happening in very many places. The big USFS logging forests are all east of the Mississippi River. Look at the volumes and values, for the annual USFS timber sales, and you will find that out in a short while.

    The “let ‘er burn” Wilderness Society stopped the Plumas NF plan, a document over a decade in the making, with all interest groups at the table, with a Congressional mandate to work things out sponsored by Sen. Feinstein among others, in the form of the Quincy Library Working Group. All their efforts for naught. The cackle of the three judges in their opinions was audible. The WFU designation, and adequate fuels, will ensure there is little to log in the future.