LOLO HOT SPRINGS - The bugle of elk and the howl of chain saws mingle along Fish Creek Road, where one of the nation's biggest private-public land deals is under way.
The summer has been traumatic for some rock climbers, who've found one of their favorite outcrops scarred with logging cuts. It's been a relief for loggers who are back at work in tough economic times. And it's been a conundrum for conservation groups, whose "protecting nature, preserving life" motto now involves becoming a timber company.
The land is part of a checkerboarded mix that once belonged to Plum Creek Timber Co. Last year, the company agreed to sell 310,000 acres of its forest holdings to The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Lands in a three-phase deal known as the Legacy Project.
"I can understand why people who treasure a place would be upset to see it logged," said Chris Bryant, outreach director for The Nature Conservancy. "But it's not a question of what Elk Rock will look like in 10 years. It's not the first time it's been logged. We should be asking: What is the potential for the landscape in 20, 30, even 50 years? This is not a project for short-term thinkers."
The deal also includes an option for Plum Creek to buy 92 million board feet of timber off its former lands over the next 10 years. In addition, the company retained the right to honor previous logging contracts.
That was a relief for loggers like Dave Swartz of Lolo Creek, who was working alongside Fish Creek Road last week.
"We're going to get about 20 loads out of this project," Swartz said, standing alongside his log skidder a little north of Lolo Hot Springs. "We had it under contract last year, before the land was sold, but we were shut down last winter because of the economy. Mainly what we're taking is beetle-killed lodgepole. It's mostly for pulp. We're getting a few fir and larch."
But the wood work has left some observers of the deal concerned that millions of public dollars are going to buy clear-cuts. While The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Lands are actively planning and bidding out their own timber sales, their representatives maintain that's only a small part of the bigger picture.
"It's our belief this is a relatively light harvest plan," said TPL's Rocky Mountain program director, Eric Love. "The growth rate far exceeds the take rate. And the fiber supply agreement was part of the transaction. We were trying to do our best for the jobs and the mills. We never had any intention of having these lands have a big fence put around them. It's a working forest, and it's remaining a working forest."
Plum Creek spokeswoman Kathy Budinick said the company passed on the first three quarters' offerings, but has accepted its fourth-quarter allotment to log on 69,500 acres. Most of that work will be in the Mill Creek drainage above Frenchtown and in the Seeley Lake area.
The project has essentially turned the Nature Conservancy into a logging company. It has hired a forester to inventory the acreage and design timber sales. The closure of Plum Creek's Pablo mill has cut into the finances. Now the Fish Creek logs must be trucked all the way to Columbia Falls.
What profit the Nature Conservancy sees from logging goes to its interest payments on the land or to stewardship work. It has already been actively spraying weeds along forest roads in Mineral County, ripping out some 35 miles of closed roads, removing or replacing more than 35 culverts and rebuilding streambeds.
The two conservation groups paid about $465 million for the Plum Creek land. About half of that came from a federal allocation, with the rest raised through loans within the groups.
The groups expect to sell the land as quickly as possible to owners who will maintain public access and preserve habitat. In large part, that means the U.S. Forest Service, which is picking up most of Phase 2's 111,720 acres.
"Our eyes are very open on what we're getting, and we're fine with what we're getting," said Forest Service Region 1 spokeswoman Elizabeth Slown. "Our due-diligence effort looks to see if these are good lands for the future, not what they look like today. The value is not based on the value of standing timber, or cost of restoration that might need to be done. It gets down to location - filling in checkerboard, creating connectivity in terms of wildlife, making sure there's public access in place."
The conservation groups initially planned to sell some land to private buyers - with conservation easements. But TPL's Love said the collapse of the housing market has put that piece "on the back burner." He added the finances for next year's Phase 3 closing were still on track, but would not reveal how the money was being replaced.
Another important player may be the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Region 2 Supervisor Mack Long has a proposal to buy 41,000 acres of the Fish Creek land, plus about 24,000 acres around Marshall Lake northeast of Missoula. That deal could be worked out over the next couple years.
The Fish Creek drainage has many Mineral County residents pulled in different directions. On one hand, it's been a favorite playground for hunting, fishing, mushroom picking and access into larger wilderness areas. On the other, Plum Creek paid property taxes in a county where only 8 percent of the land is on the tax rolls. Selling the land to private buyers could mean loss of access. Selling to government buyers could mean loss of tax revenues.
In Superior, Kevin Chamberlain of the Mineral County Extension Office has kept an eye on the land deal through the volunteer Fish Creek Working Group. He said much of the dilemma was resolved when the Nature Conservancy brokered the deal with Fish, Wildlife and Parks. FWP has pledged to keep the land open and maintained for natural benefit, but is also required by state law to pay property taxes.
"They (TNC) are hanging way out there in terms of buying these lands, and hopefully holding them for a use that's proper as perceived by the locals and the community at large," Chamberlain said. "I really respect them for that. And it's been fun to work with them. It's like almost for the first time, our input has some value."
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.