Posted by: JohnnyRook | July 5, 2008

Another Grab as the Rats Pack Up: Forest Service Turns Wilderness into Subdivisions

The Bush Administration’s final rush to loot and pillage as much of America’s national heritage as it can before leaving office is proceeding full steam ahead. On the heals of its plans to lift the ban on offshore drilling and its refusal to abide by the Supreme Court ruling on EPA’s responsibility to regulate greenhouse gases comes this.

From today’s Washington Post:

The Bush administration is preparing to ease the way for the nation’s largest private landowner to convert hundreds of thousands of acres of mountain forestland to residential subdivisions.

The deal was struck behind closed doors between Mark E. Rey, the former timber lobbyist who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, and Plum Creek Timber Co., a former logging company turned real estate investment trust that is building homes. Plum Creek owns more than 8 million acres nationwide, including 1.2 million acres in the mountains of western Montana, where local officials were stunned and outraged at the deal. [My emphasis]

So, why were local officials stunned and outraged? Because Rey has blown them and the public off.

As the Missoulian reported a couple of months ago:

Missoula County officials have asked federal land managers to break off closed-door talks with Plum Creek Timber Co., at least until the public has a chance to review the paperwork.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, however, refused to release the documents which had been requested under the Freedom of Information Act. The result is likely to be a court battle and, given today’s announcement, soon.

The issue here has to do with access to millions of acres that Plum Creek wants to develop. Much of Plum Creek’s holdings form part of a checkerboard with Forest Service land. Plum Creek’s original easements only gave it the right to cross public lands for the purposes of logging, specifically denying access to the public for any other purpose than use as trails. Plum Creek wants that changed and is counting on Rey to help them do it.

Again the Missoulian:

… Mark Rey says he is not yet prepared to hand over critical documents to Montana counties, despite increased calls that he do so, and his refusal is forcing a federal land use dispute ever closer to the courts.

“It’s still under consideration,” Rey said. Previously, however, he had said expecting him to provide the paperwork was unrealistic.”

There are probably two reason that Rey does not want to release the documents.

Reason 1–A need to hurry: Scrutinizing the documents in a open, public process will take some time making it unlikely that the potentially very lucrative deal that Plum Creek wants can be closed before the Bush Administration leaves office. If isn’t closed before Bush leaves office it’s unlikely to happen under an Obama administration.

The question is not whether Plum Creek has access to its property – federal law guarantees that. The problem, rather, is whether the scope of that right is assumed, or will be established through a public process. [My emphasis]

If universal access is assumed, as Rey suggests, then the value of the company land increases considerably, and the path is paved for wholesale conversion of forest into subdivision.[my emphasis]

In response to concerns in the county Senator Jon Tester “fired a letter to Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, asking that the access negotiations stop until local stakeholders can be included”.

Plum Creek, [Tester spokesperson, Aaron] Murphy said, owns 1.2 million acres in Montana, about 8 million acres nationwide, and is the country’s largest private landowner. The company has identified some 2 million of those acres for possible sale (estimated value $5.7 billion), but won’t say exactly which acres those are. Another million acres soon could be added to the “for-sale” list, according to Plum Creek’s 2007 annual report.

That same report shows the company’s real estate revenue tripling over the past five years, to more than $330 million annually. Some lots sold for more than $10,000 per acre, surely meeting the company’s stated goal of “determining the highest value of an acre of land then capturing that value – that’s what we do!”

Remote corners of Swan Valley are selling for $11,000 an acre, with broker inquiries arriving from Europe. By comparison, the “net present value per acre of forest” runs at most $500, said Larry Swanson, director of the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana.

Let’s see, 10,000 dollars an acre versus 500 dollars an acre. And Plum Creek owns 8.2 million acres… Seems we’re talking some big money here.


Reason 2–A need for secrecy:
The documents will show that the easements are limited.

From the Missoulian:

Rey has pointed to original easement language guaranteeing Plum Creek access for “the protection, administration, management and utilization” of the land. He has left out the rest of the paragraph, however, which says “but not including the right to permit use of said road by the public, except for use as a trail.”

So, Plum Creek, the country’s largest land owner and, Rey, the former lobbyist who is now in charge of the US Forest Service under the most corrupt, pro-corporate administration in the history of the country want to do a deal that promises fantastic profits, and the reason they want to do it fast and without the bother of public scrutiny is because people realize they’re getting screwed and if they can get their act together in time might possibly derail the entire deal.

Who are the losers here then?

There are a number of them. At a local level it’s Montanans, specifically residents of Missoula County. They stand to lose access to hiking, fishing, hunting and other recreational lands because as Plum Creeks properties are sold and developed the new owners will restrict access (by closing the former logging roads) to Forest Service lands that abut on their property. Quality of life for local residents will drop as forest land is replaced by gated communities full of McMansions.

According to the Washington Post:

Most are the second, third or even fourth homes of wealthy newcomers who have transformed the local economy — 40 percent of income in Missoula County is now “unearned,” from, say, dividends — and typically visit only in the summer.

Traffic will worsen, water quality will be impacted and endangered species will be put at further risk.

Under the new agreement, logging roads running into areas controlled by Plum Creek could be paved — and would thrum with the traffic of eight to 12 vehicle trips per day to and from each home, according to O’Herren. Critics say that will further imperil grizzly bears, lynxes and other endangered species in the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, a region of rugged peaks, glacier-carved valleys, and sparkling rivers and lakes that straddles the border between Montana and Canada — and that in parts remains as Lewis and Clark found it.

Environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public lands have worked out a deal with Plum Creek to save some of the land, about 280,000 acres, which they have purchased at market price (about $1,800 an acre–compare that with the $500 an acre value of the property as timberland.) In order to raise the funds, Montana Senator Max Bacus (D), inserted a public financing mechanism for 500 million dollars into this years Farm Bill. In other words the taxpayers, in order to protect land, are going to pay a market price that would not exist if Rey were not giving away public easements to Plum Creek for nothing.

Baucus praised Plum Creek for “being such a good partner,” adding, “Clearly, Plum Creek wanted to do the right thing.”

The praise from the timber giant was mutual, with Hank Ricklefs, Plum Creek’s vice president of northern resources and manufacturing, thanking Baucus for making the deal possible.

County officials say taxpayers will subsidize Plum Creek’s profits if Rey’s easement amendment paves the way for wholesale development of company lands.

Local governments complain the conversion of timberland into residential neighborhoods hurts taxpayers, as counties scramble to provide urban services to the far-flung homesites. Others worry about increased firefighting costs as homes pop up in the forested fringe.

Agriculture Undersecretary Rey has suggested that Counties change their zoning laws if they are concerned about Plum Creek’s development plan. The problem is that under Montana law, Plum Creek which owns 57@ of the private land in Missoula County can veto any zoning legislation that it disagrees with.

Other negative consequences will affect us all.

And what about the loss of revenue to the United States treasury if the easements, which were intended originally only to be used for logging are given away for development to Plum Creek at no charge? Why should the American taxpayer subsidize making Plum Creek any richer than it already is?

And finally, what about the biggest issue of our time: Climaticide? Forests are carbon sinks absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering it in their roots, branches and trunks. If Plum Creek develops even half of its lands it will be adding significant amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere, all subsidized by the American taxpayer.

As is usual with the traditional media, there is no mention in any of the articles that I have read of this problem. Yet it is a classical case of abuse of the commons. The beneficiaries of the development will be Plum Creek and a small class of wealthy, SUV-driving, vacation home owners. The losers will be other citizens who see their taxes rise while losing their access to public lands. Climaticide will intensify, imposing additional costs for mediation and adaptation on us all.

Of course, none of this may occur, if the citizens of Missoula County file their lawsuit in time to reign in Mr. Rey and the Bush Administration. Even if that happens, though, expect more of this kind of behavior for the next six months. The hirelings of crony capitalism realize they are soon to be thrown out of office, and they plan to steal as much of our national china and silver as they can carry and we will let them get away with before they go.

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Responses

  1. As an owner of land in beautiful western Montana, I’m pleased to see others outside the state share my indignation over the Mark Rey-Plum Creek easement deal. Not only have the Bush Administration and the nation’s largest private landowner shown contempt for public opinion by negotiating for months behind closed doors, the Administration, in doing so, is also violating a series of federal environmental laws, most notably the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Forest Roads and Trails Act. If enforced, these laws would require formal environmental review with public input and would require the mitigation of impacts to endangered and threatened species. Instead, the Bush Administration, as it exits the stage with seeming contempt for the rest of us, prefers to give a major corporate constituent a parting gift that will add hugely to the assessed value of the real estate trust’s enormous land holdings.

    Rey’s legal justification for not complying with these laws is that the Forest Service, in coming to terms with Plum Creek, is not really doing anything. Thus, the elaborate legal the document addressing Plum Creek’s access rights merely “clarifies,” and does not “change,” the terms of long-standing easements defining the respective rights and obligations of Plum Creek and the Forest Service with respect to federal roads in remote forest locations. The trouble with this characterization is that the clarified (new) language clearly gives Plum Creek the right to use federal roads as de facto year-round driveways for high-end residential subdivisions in remote forested areas with severe wildfire risks. Traditionally, Plum Creek has used these taxpayer-subsidized roads to facilitate the logging of its vast timber properties and for no other purpose. Its new business plan, however, is to shift from timber production to residential development by selling off chunks of its vast nation-wide holdings, which include some 1.3 million acres in Montana alone. This plan has been somewhat thwarted by concerns raised by property purchasers and their brokers about how “good” the existing legal right of access is for many remote properties. Many federal roads are not plowed in the winter, which is a source of inconvenience for residential owners (though an ecological benefit to nearby wildlife). These federal roads will now have to be plowed to allow wealthy new second-homeowners access to their new trophy properties.

    The potential environmental effects of these proposed easement “clarifications” can hardly be overstated. These new easement document will facilitate the subdivision and fragmentation of millions of acres of forested lands across the Northwest, including areas occupied by endangered and threatened species such as lynx and grizzly bears, as well as areas identified as actual or potential critical habitat for such species. Currently, Plum Creek is asking for enhanced residential access throughout an area within a larger area known as the Northern Continental Divide Ecoregion, which is possibly the largest block of contiguous public land and wilderness in the continental United States. This Ecoregion supports a rich biodiversity of both plants and animals, including endangered and threatened species. These “clarifications” will facilitate sprawling real estate development and subdivisions across this Ecoregion that cannot be checked by local land use regulators.

    The inability for local governments in Montana to check this sprawl reflects the fact that Plum Creek and other large landowners and special interests in Montana have persuaded the pliable Montana Legislature to give them a veto power over local zoning decisions (see Mont. Code Anno., § 76-2-01(5)), notwithstanding a state constitutional mandate requiring the Legislature to “provide for the administration and enforcement” of the duty of the state and each person in Montana to “maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations” (Mont. Const., Art. IX § 1). This state legal scheme, of which the Forest Service must take note in considering the foreseeable effects of its own actions, essentially gives Plum Creek, and not the local governments, effective control over county zoning. In other words, if the Forest Service does not function as something of a “regulator” through its compliance with various federal environmental laws, no meaningful environmental review or protection will occur. The Forest Service, then, is the public’s only potentially effective check against Plum Creek’s unbridled self-interest.

  2. Thanks Jim. Given that the Forest Service, at least at the top, is clearly in bed with the Bush, Administration on this question, it seems that the best we can hope for is to delay Mark Rey’s decision, or at least its implementation, until the next president takes office.


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