“We don’t know these 320,000 acres. You do,” said Caroline Byrd of The Nature Conservancy.
Which is why TNC and the Trust for Public Lands held a public meeting in Evaro Wednesday evening, the first of many to be held in communities around Western Montana.
About 20 people lined the wooden benches of the Evaro Community Center to learn about the nuts and bolts of the Montana Legacy Project. And, more importantly, to convey their thoughts and concerns and on-the-ground knowledge as the two non-profits buy swaths of nearby land from Plum Creek Timber Co. to conserve for perpetuity.
“What we have right now is a purchase agreement to buy this land in red,” Byrd said, motioning to the maps of checkerboarded lands pinned to the wall. “Land we’ve all enjoyed and used and hiked on and hunted…We want to keep it that way.”
But, because the groups won’t retain the land themselves, there remain questions about which federal and state agencies and private conservation buyers will eventually manage which chunks of land, and how. “We haven’t got this all figured out,” she said.
The Montana Legacy Project is dubbed the largest land purchase for conservation purposes in American history — $510 million for 320,000 acres. Amid the panic over Plum Creek, the largest private landowner in Montana, selling off its timberlands for real estate development, deep-pocketed conservation groups see an opportunity. The project will help preserve one of the largest, most intact ecosystems remaining in the lower 48, part of the Crown of the Continent, while ensuring the access to the lands Montanans have long enjoyed.
Public access is “one of our principle objectives here,” Byrd said.
|At the table, from right to left, Caroline Byrd of The Nature Conservancy, Robert Rasmussen of The Trust for Public Land, and Chris Bryant of The Nature Conservancy|
The deal, to be closed over the next two-and-a-half years, is made possible by a bonding mechanism worth as much as $250 million Sen. Max Baucus inserted into the Farm Bill. It means approximately 90,000 acres — likely checkerboard areas surrounded by Forest Service land — will be transferred to the federal government.
In addition, as TPL’s Robert Rasmussen explained, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Fish, Wildlife and Parks will also likely acquire land, funding for which will be hammered out in Montana’s next legislative session.
Some of the private conservation buyers may include TIMOs, or Timber Investment Management Organizations, which, Rasmussen said, is “in sync with (our goal of) maintaining these lands as working lands.”
To that end, part of the agreement stipulates that TNC and TPL will sell to Plum Creek at market value a certain number of board feet, logged from lands they choose, over the next 10 to 15 years.
After Byrd and Rasmussen’s roughly 20-minute presentation, they opened it up for about 90 minutes of questions and comments. The first, and most obvious: “Why is Plum Creek selling this land?”
Plum Creek’s Lorrie Woods was in attendance and fielded it. “We think this is the right thing to do,” she said. “The timber supply helps, keeping our core business our core business.” She called it a “great balance” between conservation and maintaining working lands.
One woman commented, “Our quality of life and wildlife habitat should be (priority) No. 1. Period.”
The group was in agreement that the two small red blocks on the map that pinch Highway 93 near mile marker six should be of special consideration, because it’s where elk, bobcat and bear cross the road.
|Click the image for a larger map from the Montana Legacy Project|
A woman expressed her desire for burned and cut forest, particularly where the Black Cat fire burned last year, to go to the University Montana’s School of Forestry so it can be studied and managed for timber and wildlife.
Another brought up the ongoing Plum Creek road easement conflict, worried about the potential of more traffic on forest roads. Byrd assured that these lands won’t be affected, but the question opened up a conversation about changes in access. “If it’s under our ownership, it will be the status quo,” Byrd said.
“What if you get halfway through this and something goes screwy?” one man asked.
“There is risk involved for our organizations,” Rasmussen replied. But, “It’s not a situation where we can go halfway in and then stop.” Earlier in the evening Byrd had expressed her worries about “how we’re going to pull this off,” being the largest land-buy for either organization. “We can’t take both organizations down in flames by coming up with money to buy this land,” she said.
What about taxes? Byrd assured the group that TNC and TPL will pay property taxes, and their deal to sell timber to Plum Creek will help. A flare-up over communities’ diminishing tax bases was quelled when Mark Finney, a Forest Service scientist, said the costs associated with dispersed development is much greater than any increase in taxes Montanans might see. One woman chimed in and said, “We all pay a price for where we live.”
Toward the end of the evening one man expressed his skepticism. “Plum Creek seems to be coming out of this smelling like roses,” he said. “What I want to know is, Is this a good deal?”
“There’s an economy of scale that makes it a good deal,” Byrd said. “There are many ways to look at this, but it was a price we both negotiated hard to reach. That both sides are satisfied with the price means we got a good deal.”
Meggen Ryan of the Missoula County Open Lands Committee added, “We’d be fools to pass this by.” The land is being purchased for $1,600 per acre, whereas some could sell individually for $10,000 to developers, she said. “We should hop on this train while we can and appreciate that Plum Creek is willing to sell them.”
The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land are holding additional meetings this week and next in Missoula County communities about the Montana Legacy Project, as requested by the Missoula County Commission. Here’s the schedule (links open PDFs from Missoula County Rural Initiatives):