MISSOULA, Mont. - 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....
The deal, which Rey said he expects to formalize next month, threatens to dramatically accelerate trends already transforming the region. Plum Creek's shift from logging to real estate reflects a broader shift in the Western economy, from one long grounded in the industrial-scale extraction of natural resources to one based on accommodating the new residents who have made the region the fastest-growing in the nation.
Environmentalists, to their surprise, found that timber and mining were easier on the countryside.
"Now that Plum Creek is getting out of the timber business, we're kind of missing the loggers," said Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit that studies land management in the West. "A clear-cut will grow back, but a subdivision of trophy homes, that's going to be that way forever.
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....
"Look at that, Tom!" Parker yelped, after a climb up a knoll revealed a three-story log home, still wrapped in Tyvek HomeWrap insulation. "They're like mushrooms. You get a few sunny days and they pop right up...."
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. In Antler Ridge, across Highway 93, Web cameras installed over bird nests and a bear den beam photos to a hedge fund partner who visits his 200 acres just a few times a year.
"He was actually in France when the bear left the den," said "remote wildlife viewing" contractor Ryan Alter, on his way to install a camera at an owl's nest. "So I sent him pictures on his BlackBerry...."
Plum Creek said it has sold only 3,000 of its Montana acres to developers in the past five years, and it expects to sell even less in the next five, the company's president, Rick Holley, wrote in a recent op-ed in the Missoulian newspaper. But critics point out that its calculations may shift with the real estate market.
A decade ago, while repairing an image as the "Darth Vader of the timber industry," as one congressman put it, the company showcased good-forestry practices on a hillside above Flathead Lake.
That parcel is now Eagle's Crest, a gated subdivision with its own airstrip and lots on offer for $100,000 an acre. 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.
Bold is mine because I used to have romantic visions of grandeur about Montana, always wanting to live there, or in Wyoming wit Harrison Ford. Ah well. Full article below.