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Plum Creek Timber Co. has agreed to sell 117,152 acres around Placid Lake and the Gold Creek drainage northeast of Missoula to the Nature Conservancy for $85 million.

“They are among the most ecologically diverse and intact biological systems remaining in the United States,” Plum Creek spokeswoman Kate Tate said in a media release Monday afternoon.

The deal also includes 48,000 acres on both sides of Interstate 90 between Snoqualmie Pass and Ellensburg in western Washington, in the heart of the Cascade Range. Total cost of the sale is $134 million.

“This isn’t just Seeley Lake’s backyard,” said Nature Conservancy land manager Chris Bryant. “It’s Missoula’s backyard as well. It’s almost adjacent to the Rattlesnake Wilderness, and it touches some of the (Confederated Salish and Kootenai) Tribal Primitive Area by Jocko Lake. This landscape has cultural value for traditional resources, Native American uses, current hunting, and recreation. It’s a really important landscape for people, as well as wildlife. Now we’ve got to figure how to balance all that in a long-term ownership strategy.”

The land will be transferred in two phases. The first involving the Washington property should close by the fourth quarter of 2014. The second phase with Montana’s Clearwater-Blackfoot acreage will close in the first quarter of 2015. The Montana portion is worth $85 million, or about $725 an acre.

That’s considerably less than what The Nature Conservancy and Trust For Public Lands paid Plum Creek for 310,000 acres of the Montana Legacy Project between 2007 and 2010. That deal included much of the Fish Creek drainage south of Alberton, as well as thousands of acres around Marshall Lake and other parts of the Seeley-Swan and Blackfoot River drainages. It cost about $500 million, $250 million of which came from federal allocations. Most of that land has been transferred to state or federal ownership.

“It’s a different world since 2007, when we were right at the height of the (real estate) market,” Bryant said. “Things are a little saner now.”

This sale also does not include an agreement to supply Plum Creek with logs for its sawmills, as the Montana Legacy Project did.

“The logs harvested on the land in this deal comprised a small portion of our total log supply for manufacturing,” Tate said. “The agreement includes lands at relatively high elevations with slower-growing trees. These lands are less productive for timber operations, but they’re highly desired for conservation projects like this.”

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Plum Creek had signaled its interest in developing some of its land around Placid and Seeley Lake as residential or recreational property when Missoula County was developing a growth management plan for the Seeley Lake area. Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss said the change in ownership could reopen the discussion.

“The exciting thing is with TNC ownership, it doesn’t have timelines to get things done quickly,” Curtiss said. “We can take the time to have community conversations they want to have. And we’re updating our growth policy at same time – we’re having conversations about what people value in their areas. Their land use decisions going forward will be based on what the community tells them and what our growth policy outlines as important values.”

Bryant added The Nature Conservancy would continue Plum Creek’s open-access policy, meaning hunters and hikers won’t see any changes in open or closed roads this fall. TNC may make some changes as it begins restoration work next year.

“These have been industrial timberlands for a long time,” Bryant said. “From a logging perspective, they’ve definitely made their contribution for decades. But you go out there, and there’s grizzly bears, there’s lynx occupying the habitat. It’s really resilient in many places.

"There are some places that need restoration where you have knapweed and other invasive weeds. We’ll be reviewing the road system and seeing what shape things are in from an erosion and culvert standpoint. That will be first thing we do for analysis in the spring.”

Plum Creek still owns 772,000 acres in Montana. The Clearwater-Blackfoot sale comprises all of its remaining holdings in the Seeley-Swan and Blackfoot drainages.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.