Stop hatching secret, closed-door plan, Tester tells Forest Service
Senator says Montanans need to weigh in on controversial decision
(BIG SANDY, Mont.) – Senator Jon Tester today told the U.S. Forest Service to stop hatching a secret, closed-door plan that could alter the landscape of Western Montana without local input.
Tester demanded that the agency let Montanans in on the decision-making process before moving ahead with the controversial agreement, which would grant the Plum Creek Timber Company more leeway to cross Forest Service land—even for non-logging purposes.
Several commissioners in Western Montana counties worry the agreement will allow Plum Creek to sell its forestry land for housing development. Plum Creek, the nation's largest private land owner, owns 1.3 million acres of land in Montana. The company has announced plans to sell up to 2.5 million acres of its land nationwide for residential and business development.
"Montana's local leaders deserve a seat at the table when major decisions are made about their communities' future," Tester said. "No Washington agency should make deals in secret about Montana without our say so."
Tester is concerned that selling off and developing timber land will prevent Montana hunters from accessing some of the state's best hunting grounds. Tester also noted that as more timber lands are taken out of production, logging and timber mill jobs are lost.
"The conversion of this land will lead to increased housing density in the wildland urban interface, leaving local and county governments with higher firefighting costs, fragmented habitat and increased road maintenance and infrastructure costs," Tester wrote to Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey in a letter sent today.
In his letter to Rey, Tester called on the Forest Service to immediately release its draft agreement. He also asked for an opportunity to allow Montana and local governments a chance to weigh in. And he asked for a review of its cost within six months.
"I look forward to your response and would gladly help facilitate the involvement of local and state government officials in working on access issues in their jurisdictions," Tester wrote.
Tester's letter to Rey appears below.
April 11, 2008
The Honorable Mark Rey
Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment
United States Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave., S.W.
Washington, DC 20250
Dear Undersecretary Rey:
This letter is to express my concern that local officials from Montana communities have been left out of a road use agreement being facilitated by your office that would have substantial impact on my Montana constituents. I understand that the Forest Service has negotiated a reciprocal easement agreement with Plum Creek for road access that may precipitate the sale of remote timber land for housing and business development. This proposal would change cost-share road easements with the Forest Service for timber and forest management to include rights to subdivision, sales and development of lands for commercial, industrial, or residential uses. I am very concerned about the implications of this agreement and its impact on county governments.
It is my understanding that a final agreement is imminent, but has been negotiated behind closed doors. In a meeting on April 9th, 2008 I was denied a copy of the agreement, but was given an outline of its intent. I respectfully request that all negotiations on this agreement cease until there is an adequate process for the public and interested parties to be fully involved in this matter.
As you know Plum Creek is the largest private land owner in the United States, owning over 8 million acres of timber land in 18 states—including 1.3 million acres in Montana. Plum Creek has announced that in coming years it plans to sell up to 2.5 million acres of land for the purposes of residential and business development. That land is valued in excess of $5.7 billion. The conversion of this land will lead to increased housing density in the wildland urban interface, leaving local and county governments with higher firefighting costs, fragmented habitat and increased road maintenance and infrastructure costs.
Additionally, as more timber lands are taken out of production, ancillary jobs and infrastructure in the timber industry are lost. Private land owners should have flexibility in the use of their land, but the Forest Service should not facilitate the conversion of these timber lands to houses by changing road easements without cost. The magnitude of this agreement—and the precedent it will set for much of the West—requires careful scrutiny.
I strongly oppose any agreements that are hatched without the input from Congress and state and local stakeholders. I respectfully request that all negotiations be placed on hold and that the Forest Service meet several conditions before proceeding:
1. The Forest Service must immediately release the draft agreement for review by Congress, and provide for the opportunity for comment by the state of Montana and local governments that would have jurisdiction over development on Plum Creek's lands.
2. The Forest Service and the Office of Management and Budget must initiate a review of additional costs placed on federal, state and local governments due to this agreement, including increased wildland fire suppression costs–and potential road maintenance costs—and report to Congress within 6 months.
The process used to hatch these agreements is completely unacceptable and has shut the public out of a proposal that will hurt county governments and leave the American public with increasingly larger firefighting bills.
The Forest Service has a lengthy history of working with Plum Creek and other large land owners and timber companies to define access easements. Changing this access right, in this manner, sets a dangerous precedent that breaks from the historical uses of these roads and the Congressional intent of the laws under which the Forest Service should be operating.
I look forward to your response and would gladly help facilitate the involvement of local and state government officials in working on access issues in their jurisdictions. Please don't hesitate to contact me with any questions or comments on this issue.