Impacts of Weyerhaeuser deal loom large

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Timber giant Weyerhaeuser made a surprising announcement last week that it plans to sell 1,000 square miles of its Montana forestland in the coming year. The proposed $145 million transaction would account for nearly all of the 1,375 square miles of land the Seattle-based company owns in the state.

Myriad questions were raised immediately following the brief announcement of the pending exchange that would affect a huge swathe of land that includes portions of Flathead, Lake, Lincoln and Sanders counties.

How will the sale impact the company’s mills and their employees? What are the buyer’s intentions for the land? And will the acreage remain open for the thousands who use it to hunt, fish and recreate?

The mystery buyer was forced to reveal itself as speculation ran rampant.

An attorney for Georgia-based Southern Pine Plantations confirmed that the company had in fact entered into the purchase agreement with Weyerhaeuser, and immediately sought to ease growing concerns about future access to the property.

The attorney said Southern Pine has no plans “to change the long-standing practices of the prior owners related to public access, forest management, grazing, existing outfitting agreements and conservation easements, and other programs.”

Likewise, Weyerhaeuser said the company’s three manufacturing mills in Montana will not be affected by the sale, calling the deal a “strategic realignment.”

In other words, it will be business as usual.

We certainly hope so, but as they say, the proof is in the pudding.

And as Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck says, “words are cheap.”

Southern Pine Plantations is a self-described timberland and real estate company specializing in rural land acquisitions and sales — a description that has Peck gravely concerned. Peck was blunt in his assessment of the deal, calling it a “disaster.” He worries Southern Pine could resell the vast tract of Northwest Montana land to private owners, who will restrict or cut off access to the property.

“At some point in time, they’re going to have to get a return on their investment,” Peck told The Western News. “They don’t own any mills, they don’t have any forestry people and you’re just not going to make that money back letting people hunt for free.”

As for Weyerhaeuser’s claims about keeping the mills running, Peck isn’t convinced, saying the company acted with a “total lack of respect to the entire Northwest Montana economy” in making this deal.

It’s a point that weighs heavy on stakeholders in the local timber industry — from the loggers in the forest to the workers in the mills, and the truck drivers in between. It’s worth noting that Montana’s timber industry accounted for more than $80 million in wages last year alone.

How will Weyerhaeuser feed its plants at the current level without access to its Montana timberlands? It’s the $80 million question, and the answer affects thousands of families across Northwest Montana.

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