Montanans enjoy the world’s greatest backyard. But much of that heritage is up for grabs.
I am referring to 1,000 square miles now owned by Weyerhaeuser Co. Historically, timber companies — Champion, Plum Creek and Weyerhaeuser — allowed people to use these lands to hunt, fish, pick berries and whatnot.
But being a good corporate neighbor is apparently out of style. Shortly before Christmas, Weyerhaeuser announced it intends to sell 600,000 acres in northwest Montana at a paltry $250 per acre. Even the folks who track these issues closely were shocked by the news.
The buyer is Georgia-based Southern Pine Plantations. While the company says it has no plans to change access policies, it’s naïve to take that at face value. The company has a track record of selling land to developers and billionaire land hogs who buy up acreages in Idaho and Montana, locking out traditional uses and blocking access to adjacent public land.
There are very good reasons why Montana's elected officials need to engage. One is the hundreds of good, family-wage timber industry jobs that are at stake. Second is the damage done to our economy and outdoor heritage if these lands are locked behind no-trespassing signs. Third is the enormous costs to taxpayers as we pay to extend police, firefighting and other expensive services to more and more remote developments.
One wonders if Weyerhaeuser’s shareholders are paying attention. Is dumping this land at $250 an acre really the best value for the company? Did Weyerhaeuser even approach public agencies or conservation groups about a better deal?
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The good news is, Montanans have a track record of protecting both our outdoor freedoms and our productive timber land. We already have the tools and potentially the dollars to succeed.
But do we have the political leadership? There is little sign of that so far.
The Montana Legacy Project is our largest success story, conserving habitat and access in the Seeley-Swan and beyond as Plum Creek liquidated its holdings starting in the 1990s. More recently, Weyerhaeuser, public agencies and the Trust for Public Lands secured the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project.
If Montanans are going to have a seat at the table, we need continued funding through programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Forest Legacy Program. These are proven tools to fund solutions.
Ironically, the recent announcement also proves that conservation efforts work. Decades ago, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Plum Creek signed a conservation easement protecting habitat and access in the Thompson and Fisher river drainages. The land was sold to Weyerhaeuser, but the easement stays intact. No matter who buys that Weyerhaeuser land, our right of access will be protected there valleys because of that contract. But that easement covers just 100,000 of the 600,000 acres Weyerhaeuser wants to sell.
We don’t have to sit by and be force-fed our future. We can engage. But time is short.
From our county commissioners, legislators and congressional delegation, now is the time for elected officials to demonstrate they are for Montana workers and outdoor families over corporations and billionaires. Voters will reward elected officials who protect our freedoms.
Weyerhaeuser’s bombshell threw a lot of dust in the air. Now is time to act. Once our access, habitat and timber base are gone, there’s no getting them back.
Ben Long is an author and conservationist who has focused on Montana wildlife and lands for more than 30 years. He lives in Kalispell.