A land deal of massive proportions involving public officials, public money and public resources is swiftly moving forward - while the public is being left in the dust.
U.S. Forest Service officials have been negotiating with Plum Creek Timber Co. executives in closed-door meetings for months over long-standing road easements that may or may not grant access for uses other than logging. Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey says they do. Many others say they don't.
Hanging in the balance is the question of whether Montana counties will end up responsible for maintaining roads and providing emergency services to subdivisions built miles from the nearest town and in the middle of wildfire-prone forests. Unfortunately, we don't yet know the answer to that question because when some county commissioners in Montana asked to see the easement agreements, Rey basically told them they would have to sue for them.
Actually, what he said at first was that commissioners would have to look through their own files to find them, which would have been an exercise in futility since commissioners wouldn't know which agreements to look for, nor which parts of them might be subject to "clarification," in Rey's words. Now he's saying the commissioners' request is under consideration.
It's more than a little disturbing that one government agency isn't willing to share information with another, and that the public is being excluded from decisions that stand to have a significant impact on us. It really shouldn't come to this, but if the only way to see the Forest Service's easement agreements with Plum Creek is to take the agency to court, then so be it.
Meanwhile, the federal farm bill was approved by a veto-proof majority in Congress, and included in that bill is a provision that could throw a lot of taxpayer money Plum Creek's way. The provision essentially provides $250 million for land conservation by financing land buys through the sale of tax-credit bonds.
Given all this, we doubt last week's announcement that Plum Creek is ready to sell off about 300,000 acres of the 1.2 million acres it owns in Montana was entirely coincidental. Plum Creek said it would accept $500 million for the land. The state and federal governments could purchase it by using - surprise! - the money provided through the farm bill provision, plus an additional $100 million from state agencies, and the rest could be raised by the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land, the two conservation organizations that have already begun meeting with Plum Creek to discuss which lands should be included in the deal.
This has the potential to be a win-win for both the public and Plum Creek. Not only would Plum Creek get to sell off a large portion of its lands all at once, those lands would still be managed to allow for logging. The public would not only gain ownership of large swaths of forested land, we would also be saved the headache of trying to figure out how to protect private property in those areas from wildfires.
Even better, if the deal involves enough acres in Missoula County, we could finally wrest the authority to protest zoning enacted by the county. Right now, Plum Creek owns more than 400,000 acres in Missoula County, which amounts to more than half the private land in six of Missoula County's nine zoning regions - meaning it may protest and potentially cancel any attempt at zoning. While some state legislators have pledged to remedy this during the next session, a large enough land sale could resolve the issue, too.
But we don't yet know for sure. Though the farm bill provision appears to be a done deal, we haven't been let in on just how its use will play out in Missoula County.
We have no problem with Plum Creek angling to get itself a good deal. As a publicly traded company, its interests lie with its stockholders.
But we can't understand why our public officials, with the notable exception of county commissioners, aren't pressing for more public involvement. They are supposed to be acting in the public's best interests and at the very least, we deserve access to the same information Plum Creek has been given. After all, it's our money that's being offered.
And it's not at all clear that we're getting
a good deal.