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HELENA n U.S. Sen. Jon Tester asked congressional investigators Tuesday to examine closed-door road negotiations between the U.S. Forest Service and Plum Creek Timber Co.

The Montana Democrat also asked Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer to postpone making any changes to Plum Creek's federal road easements until the investigation is complete.

"My hope is just to find out what the heck is going on," Tester said in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon.

At issue are decades-old agreements Plum Creek has with the Forest Service that allow the timber company to drive across federal land to log its own property.

Since 1999, however, Plum Creek has not been organized as a timber company, but as a real estate investment trust. Selling industrial timberlands for real estate development has since been an increasingly lucrative part of Plum Creek's business, and the company has said it intends to sell more.

For the past two years, Tester said, the company has been negotiating behind closed doors with federal officials to expand the uses allowed under its road easements, which previously dealt only with logging. The proposed new easements would give Plum Creek the right to drive across public land for commercial, industrial or residential development, and according to Tester and several western Montana officials, would open up numerous tracts of land to real estate development.

With 1.2 million acres in its possession in western Montana, Plum Creek is the largest private landowner in the state.

Tester and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., jointly asked the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to conduct the probe. In their Tuesday letter to the agency, the senators wrote that as recently as 2006 a Forest Service official in Seeley Lake concluded that such road easements were only for logging and could not be used for other purposes.

But two years later, in 2008, a Forest Service lawyer took exactly the opposite position, concluding that such easements were for whatever the timber company wanted to use them for.

Rey has said the negotiations were only to "clarify" the easements and that he would release more information about the changes.

But so far, Tester said, the undersecretary has failed to do so.

For more information, read Wednesday's Missoulian or go to Missoulian.com.

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