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Plum Creek CEO Rick Holley told Missoula County Commissioners in a letter sent today that the timber company is backing off a controversial proposal to allow logging roads on public lands to be used for any purpose, including development. The letter comes just after Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey vowed to push the easements through before Barack Obama, who said he would oppose the proposal, takes office January 20. In the letter, Holley writes, "Although we continue to believe that the easement amendment would be beneficial to the general public, given the the lack of receptivity, we have decided not to go forward with the amendment." Missoula County had been very vocal in its opposition to the easement amendment and the letter was welcome news to Deputy Missoula County Attorney James McCubbin who called the move, "commendable." "We appreciate that they're reacting to the public input they've received," McCubbin said. Click here for a PDF of the letter and stay tuned as we update the story. The easement amendment was privately negotiated between Plum Creek and the Forest Service to clarify the decades-old easements and ensure Plum Creek access across Forest Service for purposes besides resource extraction, namely to access residences. Residential development has become a big part of Plum Creek’s business as the timber industry flounders from the effects of the housing downturn. In October, the Government Accountability Office announced it was investigating the deal. Still this last weekend, the Washington Post reported Rey was ready to go forward with the plan.

Plum Creek Backs Off Road Easements in Montana

Plum Creek CEO Rick Holley told Missoula County Commissioners in a letter sent today that the timber company is backing off a controversial proposal to allow logging roads on public lands to be used for any purpose, including development.

The letter comes just after Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey vowed to push the easements through before Barack Obama, who said he would oppose the proposal, takes office January 20. In the letter, Holley writes, “Although we continue to believe that the easement amendment would be beneficial to the general public, given the the lack of receptivity, we have decided not to go forward with the amendment.”

Missoula County — commissioners and the general public — had been very vocal in its opposition to the easement amendment and the letter was welcome news to Deputy Missoula County Attorney James McCubbin who called the move, “commendable.”

“We appreciate that they’re reacting to the public input they’ve received,” McCubbin said.

Commissioner Jean Curtiss, who had led the charge to schedule public meetings on the deal said: “We were all pleasantly surprised. I think it’s a good choice on Plum Creek’s part.”

Click here for a PDF of the letter.

The easement amendment was privately negotiated between Plum Creek and the Forest Service to clarify the decades-old easements and ensure Plum Creek access across Forest Service for purposes besides resource extraction, namely to access residences. Residential development has become a big part of Plum Creek’s business as the timber industry flounders from the effects of the housing downturn. In October, the Government Accountability Office announced it was investigating the deal. Still this last weekend, the Washington Post reported Rey was ready to go forward with the plan.

Curtiss said the county was never given any indication that the Forest Service was backing down in its bid. Rey, the former timber industry lobbyist who was at the center of the firestorm between the county and Forest Service, had insisted that the easements be amended “come hell or high water,” Curtiss said.

But Plum Creek said in September that Montana counties that wanted to back out of the amendment could.

With Holley’s letter, said Plum Creek communications director Kathy Budinick, “we’re simply taking it a step further and saying, ‘We’re just not going to implement it anywhere.’”

Curtiss said the county will move forward with its discussions with Plum Creek on zoning. “That will determine what the development rights are on these pieces of property,” she said. Zoning offers Plum Creek predictability, she said, and it helps the county decide where development should occur and where resources should be protected.

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Comments

  1. Fubar says:

    Victory for local government. The Feds and large corporation did not get away with this one.

  2. Jim Moose says:

    I heartily agree with Missoula County Commissioner Curtiss that zoning is the appropriate mechanism for determining how much development should occur on Plum Creek lands and where. The public process leading to the adoption of zoning will therefore be an extremely important venue for public input, the application of sound planning principles, and scientific analysis of the potential adverse effects of development.

    I hope that, in carrying forward the zoning process on Plum Creek lands, Missoula County officials will take an expansive view of the County’s regulatory and planning powers under the state constitution and statutes. The County should assume that these powers include sufficient authority to protect the environment and natural resources from unreasonable degradation.

    Although Plum Creek, like any private land owner, has a constitutional right to object to any zoning action that would eliminate all reasonable economic use of its property, Plum Creek has no inherent right to undertake significant amounts of residential development in sensitive forests that include some of the most precious habitat in the lower 48 states. Continued timber harvesting with appropriate mitigation may be a less impacting land use in these areas; and it is presumptively an economically viable use as the traditional use for many decades. The fact the Plum Creek could make more money more quickly building houses than cutting trees does not give Plum Creek a legal right to build those houses regardless of the environmental consequences and the economic and fiscal costs. Nor does Plum Creek have any reasonable investment-backed expectation of a right or privilege to pursue residential development in forested areas based on past actions of, or decisions by, Missoula County or the State of Montana.

    I believe that Missoula County staff and officials must proceed through the process of formulating zoning on Plum Creek lands and elsewhere with strict adherence to principles of state constitutional law requiring a high level of environmental protection. In Montana, each resident has an alienable right to a clean and healthful environment, and the Legislature has a duty to make this right real and enforceable. As of a subdivision of the State of Montana, the County has a duty to act within this constitutional framework. To the extent that a particular Montana planning or zoning statute might seem to fall short of sufficiently ensuring environmental protection, the County should construe such ambiguities or vagueness in the statutes in a manner that facilitates, rather than thwarts, the overriding state policy goal of environmental protection. Alternatively, courts may conclude that certain statutes are unconstitutional because they fall so short of providing for or allowing envirionmental protection. In either event, Montana constitutional provisions, in my judgment, require Missoula County to take environmental concerns very seriously as it proceeds with formulating zoning.

    The County should also refuse to be intimidated by the possibiliy that Plum Creek, as a very large scale landowner, might choose to exercise its right of “veto” over the final result of any particular zoning process, such as that for the proposed Seeley Lake Regional Plan. The Montana statute giving Plum Creek this veto power is of questionable legality for multiple reasons. One is that the private veto concept makes a mockery of the state constitutional provisions described above, which elevate environmental protection to the highest possible level under state law. The veto statute also undermines democratic decision-making by creating a preferred class of citizens with large land holdings, who can resist the exercise of governmental power and authority in a way that no ordinary citizen can — and at the expense of the environment. The statute also delegates what amounts to unbridled legislative power to private parties (including, as a practical matter, corporations) who are free to pursue their naked self interest at the expense of the public welfare. Similar statutes in other states have been struck down in court. In my opinion, the County Commissioners should formulate zoning that they believe best reflects the public interest and should let Plum Creek decide whether to force a legal resolution of the question of whether the veto statute can stand. The County should not, out of fear of a veto, be content to adopt zoning that will foreseeably lead to significant environmental degradation. The lands in question are simply too precious and too magnificent not to be protected for future generations.

  3. jedediah Redman says:

    Cool! Its no longer up to the Feds. Now the yokels will be able to skim all of the cream…

  4. Jeffrey B. says:

    This is NOT a victory for local government.

    If you look closely at the agreement, it is irrelevant.

    The Bush Administration already OK’d their development plans last week, and the agreement they made recently does nothing to alter Plum Creek’s rights on road easements.

    I know Newwest is pro-development, so you falling hook-line-and-sinker for Kathy Budinick’s message today isn’t a surprise, but you guys are overlooking the key issue here: road easements.

    All Plum Creek did by backing out, was retain the ambiguity over those easements, which still allows for large scale development, while bilking the public out of their bargained bennefits that would have come with the deal.

    This is a complete message move on Plum Creek’s side, and you guys bought it by running this story.

  5. steve kelly says:

    Clear as mud. Just the way the FS and PC likes to keep things. I’m surprised nobody is asking UM President Dennison to clarify the current situation publicly. Isn’t he still a highly paid member of PC’s board of directors? Where’s the leadership? Sen. Baucus? Rick Holly …seriously? It’s tough being a 3rd world colony.

  6. Matthew Koehler says:

    Steve: Dennison left the Plum Creek BoD in 1999…ten years ago.

    Jeffrey: I didn’t see anywhere that “The Bush Administration already OK’d [Plum Creek's] development plans last week…” Where did you see that? There were a few prominent articles (WA Post for example) over the weekend that lead people to believe the easement amendment was a done deal, but that was apparently not the case.

    Missoula County, and especially Deputy Attorney McCubbin, deserve a lot thanks and praise for their tireless work holding the Forest Service, Mark Rey and Plum Creek Timber Company accountable.

    Is the battle completely over? No. I’m certain Plum Creek is looking for other avenues to gain an edge by screwing local governments. But the Plum Creek/Mark Rey closed-door easement amendment appears to be dead for now. I don’t see why we can’t at least celebrate that fact.

  7. Mehmnet says:

    Bait and switch.

  8. Dave Skinner says:

    For once, Mehmnet is correct.
    Pay attention now, kids.

  9. Marion says:

    So do they still get the half BILLION that Baucus arranged for?

  10. Matthew Koehler says:

    Marion, You bring up a good question, one that we have been asking as well.

    It would be naive to think that Plum Creek executives didn’t look at the 1/2 billion dollar Legacy Project (including the fiber agreement for 15 years) in context of the behind-closed door negotiations with Mark Rey on the amended road easements in the context of the staggering drop in demand for wood products and Plum Creek’s own pending mill closures and layoffs.

  11. Dave Skinner says:

    You’re getting warmer, Matt. Amazing.