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Plum Creek Timber won't seek change in rules for forest roads

A timberland owner drops its bid for terms that critics said could open up development.

January 06, 2009|Associated Press

The nation's largest owner of timberland said Monday that it would no longer pursue changes in agreements over its use of U.S. Forest Service roads -- changes that critics complained could transform forests into housing subdivisions.

Critics of the proposed changes had included President-elect Barack Obama and a Montana senator.

Changes in the agreements would benefit the public, but "given the lack of receptivity, we have decided not to go forward," Plum Creek Timber Co. Chief Executive Rick Holley wrote in a letter to Missoula County, Mont., which opposed altering the agreements.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey indicated as recently as last week that the changes negotiated privately by the Forest Service and Plum Creek would become final before he left office when the Bush administration ends this month.

Rey, a former lobbyist for the timber industry, said the company's decision was "not good news for the federal government or the public at large." He had maintained that the changes secured new benefits for the government.

Rey declined to comment further Monday.

Critics contended that the changes sought by Plum Creek would have allowed it to pave Forest Service roads and make it easier for the company to develop vacation homes in Montana's mountain forests, saddling local governments with costly services such as fire protection in remote places.

Soon after a Montana campaign appearance, Obama said in July the changes would jeopardize public access to hunting and fishing areas.

Plum Creek owns more than 7 million acres nationwide, including about 1 million in Montana. Company spokeswoman Kathy Budinick said the decision to drop its support for changing the agreements would have little effect beyond Montana because the company's use of national forest roads is not widespread outside the state.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) had criticized the private nature of the negotiations between Plum Creek and the Forest Service and initiated a review of the talks by the federal Government Accountability Office.

"This is about transparency in government and making sure everyone impacted is at the table so they have their piece heard," he said Monday. "This is, after all, public land."

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