Deal Could Open National Forests to Developers

Published on Sunday, October 12, 2008 by The Associated Press
Deal Could Open National Forests to Developers

A controversial deal between the federal government and the nation’s largest private
landowner could increase residential development of forests around the country,
according to congressional investigators.

The proposed agreement between the Forest Service and Plum Creek Timber Co. would
allow the company to use roads on national forests in Montana to develop its
adjacent private property for subdivisions. Such easements often allow the company
to use public roads only for logging or forest management.

The Government Accountability Office, in a letter sent Friday to the two Democratic
senators who requested an investigation, said the deal could set a precedent and
allow other private landowners to use forest roads to build subdivisions. The
private negotiations deprived the public of any chance to weigh in, investigators
said.

“This report sounds all sorts of alarms about the way the Forest Service is doing
business,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who asked for the probe along with Sen.
Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.

Negotiations began after a Forest Service ranger in Seeley Lake, Mont., in 2006 told
a potential buyer of Plum Creek land that the roads leading up to the property were
not for residential use.

Forest Service officials overruled the ranger after talking with Plum Creek, the
report says. The agency determined that the company could use certain Forest Service
roads for any purpose, and the proposed agreement includes specific language that
allows the company to use Forest Service roads to access residential subdivisions
that may be built on property in the future.

Montana county officials say the proposal would make it easier for Plum Creek to
sell timberland for houses or other development.

The GAO agreed, saying “many of Plum Creek’s lands in western Montana would have a
substantially higher value if the amendment is carried out.”

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, and a
spokeswoman for Plum Creek both said they are now engaging county officials in the
process. Rey also denied that the proposal would set a precedent nationwide.

Kathy Budinick, spokeswoman for Plum Creek, said the company will not implement the
amendment in any county that doesn’t wish to have it.

© 2008 The Associated Press.

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