Anyone who has driven Highway 2 between Spokane and Whitefish, Mont., has witnessed clear-cut moonscapes left by Plum Creek timber company loggers. As residential real estate growth explodes in areas near Kalispell, Whitefish, the Swan Valley, and Missoula, those Plum Creek lands were destined to become subdivisions. Which is why the recent announcement by The Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, and Plum Creek of the sale of 320,000 acres (500 square miles) of timberland in western Montana should be hailed as a major conservation coup. For $510 million, the two conservation groups will acquire vast tracts of land that will be a major piece of the Crown of the Rockies, a complicated ecosystem of wolves, grizzlies, pine trees, Bull trout, Osprey, and salmon.
In 1989, Plum Creek was spun off from its parent, Burlington Northern (now Burlington Northern Santa Fe), later becoming a real estate investment trust based in Seattle. The timber lands, from Montana to Washington, mostly had been acquired beginning in the 19th century through federal land grants to encourage railroad development in the West. The parcels are commonly known as "checkerboard lands" because the federal government gave the railroads every other section along the railroad corridor for every mile of track that was built — thus a map of the parcels looks like a checkerboard. The federal government gave additional land adjacent to the railroad to create a buffer. Some railroads sold the land to pay for the laying of the rails. However, Burlington and the Northern Pacific (later merged to become Burlington Northern) held on to many of the valuable and productive low-lying timberlands.
As with many deals in the West these days in which non-profits acquire productive timber, grazing, mining, or other resource lands, the issues concerning the economies of resource-dependent rural communities is routinely addressed. In this case, the deal allows for continued logging on the lands, with the logs to be sold at market rates under sustainable forestry guidelines. Mills currently owned by Plum Creek will purchase the logs. Current thinking in many conservation organizations is that closely monitored logging, grazing, or mining might be far better than real estate development. This is a seismic shift in thinking from the days when University of Montana economist Thomas Powers would exclaim that ranchette housing developments are far better than clear-cuts.
Aside from the shear size and audacity of acquiring this much land for so much money, this deal has some interesting political issues. The two conservation organizations are not cutting a check for $510 million. Rather, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, inserted into the recently passed Farm Bill a mechanism for funding much of the purchase price. The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land will issue Qualified Conservation Forestry Bonds. A purchaser of a QCFB bond will get a tax credit.
Use of forestry bonds requires that the parcels be adjacent to U.S. Forest Service lands; that half the parcels acquired must eventually be turned over to the U.S. Forest Service; that a parcel must be at a minimum 40,000 acres; and that the land be subject to a Native Fish Habitat Conservation Plan approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Plum Creek spent more than $200,000 in lobbying during the first quarter of this year, the period during which the Farm Bill was debated in the Senate. Plum Creek employees have donated close to $16,000 to Baucus's campaign (although he is not up for re-election this year). While this deal is not a direct bailout of Plum Creek, the company is certainly benefiting from the creation of the forestry bonds, which enable the deal. Stating the obvious, federal taxpayers are subsidizing a sizeable portion of this sale.
Conservative tax watchdogs assert that the Qualified Conservation Forestry Bonds program was created specifically for Plum Creek. But there are other potential land acquisitions to be done using forestry bonds.
On the other side of the political spectrum, forest activist groups delight in zinging each other if there is a whiff of compromise. The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Land are often considered irrelevant in the rough and tumble milieu of protests, litigation, and lobbying still seen here in the Pacific Northwest as the modus operandi of so-called grassroots groups. Land acquisitions or even land exchanges by nonprofits are often seen as selling out by the more stringent forest activists. The local Sierra Club chapter received enormous heat for endorsing a land exchange between Plum Creek and the Forest Service along the Interstate 90 corridor in 1999. This recent Montana land acquisition, and the reality check that logging will occur on some of the parcels, will undoubtedly raise the hackles of Northwest forest activists who see buying private timber company land and then logging it as a some sort of betrayal.
Actually, it's too bad this sort of thing wasn't done sooner. The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Land did not purchase significant portions of the low timber lands once owned by the other Northwest timber giant, Weyerhaeuser, before it transferred the land to its real estate divisions. That's tragic. Many of those large tracts were near rapidly urbanizing areas, such as Seattle, Tacoma, and Vancouver, Wash., where having forested lands in the low hills, rather than large scale development, would have been a spectacular conservation legacy.