HELENA – Plum Creek Timber Co. said Monday it no longer wants to pursue changing the easements governing its use of U.S. Forest Service roads near company lands, changes negotiated privately by the company and the agency and challenged by Missoula County officials and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
Critics said the amendments could ease property development by Plum Creek, perhaps saddling counties with high costs to provide fire protection or other services for new subdivisions.
Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, indicated as recently as last week the changes likely would become final before he leaves office when the Bush administration ends this month.
Seattle-based Plum Creek, the nation’s largest owner of private land, retreated Monday in a letter to Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss, with copies to Rey and others.
“Although we continue to believe that the easement amendment would be beneficial to the general public, given the lack of receptivity, we have decided not to go forward with the amendment,” Chief Executive Officer Rick Holley wrote.
Rey said the decision is “not good news for the federal government or the public at large.” He had maintained that changes in the easements secured new benefits for the government rather than for Plum Creek, whose rights he said were clear in the easement language already in place. Amendments would have established new requirements for landowner responsibility in such areas as wildfire protection, Rey contended.
Rey declined to comment further on Monday, saying he first wanted to talk to Tester and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.
Tester got the General Accountability Office to look into the easement deal. Subsequently both he and Bingaman, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, sought an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspector general, a request still pending when Plum Creek sent its letter.
Tester’s criticism focused on concern that the easement negotiations were held privately, without opportunities for public involvement. Missoula County used the Freedom of Information Act in filing an extensive request for information about the talks, had received documents from the Forest Service and wanted more.
“This is about transparency in government and making sure everyone impacted is at the table so they have their piece heard,” Tester said. “This is, after all, public land.”
The senator said he and Rey will meet this week.
Curtiss said Missoula County officials were “as surprised as anyone” by the letter.
“Our concern was that Rey was going to sign this at the last minute, as a ‘Here’s what you get as I go out the door’ kind of thing,” Curtiss said. She said she was unsure what motivated Plum Creek.
“I don’t know if they were tired of the bad PR, even though we’ve never really pointed a finger at them,” she said. “We’ve pointed it at the Forest Service.”
Plum Creek spokeswoman Kathy Budinick said the decision reflects the company’s desire to “be responsive to the concerns raised.” Plum Creek considered its position for a while and “we thought, what the heck, let’s just not do it at all,” Budinick said.
She said amending the easements was a controversy only in Montana, not in other places where Plum Creek owns land.