Montana Timberland Sale Sparks Fears of Future Public Access
KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) — Montana officials are worried that the sale of hundreds of thousands of acres of timberland may eventually close off the public access that previous owners have allowed, despite assurances from the buyer that no such changes are planned.
Washington-based timber giant Weyerhaeuser is selling its 630,000 acres in Montana to Georgia-based Southern Pine Plantations for $145 million. That deal, expected to be closed later this year, has legislators, industry observers and outdoor recreation advocates concerned about the future of timber production and the access now granted to hunters, anglers and others, the Flathead Beacon reported.
The uncertainty is centered on speculation that Southern Pine Plantations might turn around and sell the timberland for development. State Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, urged the state Environmental Quality Council to advocate for a solution to prevent that from happening.
“What we do not know about Southern Pine Plantations’ plans is whether it even plans to keep the lands, and if it doesn’t, who is in line to be the next purchaser or purchasers?” Gunderson said.
An attorney for Southern Pine Plantations said the company has no plans to change long-standing practices when it comes to public access, forest management, grazing, outfitting agreements and conservation easements.
“We feel like there was concern that this was a bunch of Wall Street investors buying up property for a quick flip. That is not what is happening at all,” said James Bowditch, president of Boon Karlberg P.C. “This is a timber company and they intend to manage the land for timber.”
Weyerhaeuser merged with Plum Creek Timber Co. in 2016, forming the largest private owner of timberland in the U.S., with more than 13 million acres, which included at the time 880,000 acres in Montana.
After the purchase, Weyerhaeuser renewed Plum Creek’s annual contract with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks through the state’s block management program. The agreement allows hunters and other recreationists to access the private land in exchange for state game wardens patrolling the property.
Despite the assurances, Gunderson remains skeptical.
“We would like to be able to have a discussion with Weyerhaeuser and Southern Pine Plantations, or whoever the ultimate owners are, and sit down with either the county commissioners, the governor or state legislators,” Gunderson said.
In a joint letter to Weyerhaeuser from state Sen. Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, and Rep. Greg Hertz, R- Polson, the legislators urged the company to convey to the next owners that lawmakers want to work with them to “carry on the tradition of responsible stewardship.”