Plum Creek Strategy Viewed From Montana

By Steve Thompson


There's been much speculation about the implications of Plum Creek Timber Company's purchase of 905,000 acres of industrial timberland from SAPPI, especially given Plum Creek's track record in the West.

But what is that track record? Confusion is understandable. Some media report that Plum Creek is a model corporate citizen. Other reports suggest that the there is no timber left on Plum Creek's timber lands in Montana, Idaho and Washington. What's the truth? Here's my mountain-top view from western Montana:

While it's an exaggeration to say that Plum Creek has no merchantable timber across 1.5 million acres, it's undeniably true that Plum Creek has cut its Montana timberland at an unsustainable rate.

Plum Creek executive Bill Parsons said as much himself a few years ago when he told a Montana legislator that, "We have never said we were on a sustained-yield program, and we have never been on a sustained-yield program. Let's get to the heart of it. Sure, it's extensively logged, but what is wrong with that?"

Since then, Plum Creek has developed a much slicker public image. But good PR cannot erase the effects of its ongoing 15-year timber liquidation campaign on the mountainsides, watersheds and communities of western Montana.

A few years ago, Plum Creek suspended its controversial practice of clearcutting square- mile sections of forest. It announced its new practice of "environmental forestry." Unfortunately, it's not as good as it sounds.

On a small percentage of their logging jobs, Plum Creek's environmental forestry deserves praise. Their loggers leave some big trees, structural variety and a healthy mix of native tree species. These showcase jobs typically are in highly visible areas.

The majority of their logging, however, is in less visible areas where virtually all of the merchantable timber is removed. Loggers and foresters in western Montana often refer derisively to Plum Creek's forest practices as "cull tree release," highgrade - logging, or "take the best and leave the rest."

The main reason Plum Creek is aggressively purchasing timberlands in New England and the South is that its lands in Montana, Idaho and Washington are virtually played out.

The boom-and-bust timber cycle is bad enough, but perhaps even worse is Plum Creek's plan to sell 150,000 acres in Montana for real estate development. With most of the merchantable timber gone, the company identified lands in the valley bottoms and foothills where a developer conceivably could build a driveway. They are in the midst of this sale program right now.

These lands invariably are the most productive forests and the most important big-game winter range and wildlife corridors. For generations, Montana sportsmen have used these lands to access hunting and fishing opportunities.

Loggers and sportsmen across western Montana are dismayed at this second stage of Plum Creek's liquidation strategy. State and federal governments are scrambling to pay the ransom to rescue the broad public interest, to somehow prevent these lands from being chopped into ranchettes and rural subdivisions. The price tag is in the tens of millions of dollars, and many areas will be sacrificed due to a lack of public resources.

Sadly, most of these lands originally were given to the Northern Pacific railroad in 1864 as a gift from President Abraham Lincoln and the American people. They were granted to the railroads to "promote the public interest," but the gift was abused. As President Coolidge said in 1924, "the defaults of the Northern Pacific were numerous and flagrant, and the supplementary benefits allowed by the Government were many and lavish."

In the 1980s, the forested grant lands in Idaho and Montana were spun off from the railroads to their corporate successor, Plum Creek Timber. That's when the timber liquidation began in earnest.

What does this mean for Maine? Will Plum Creek overcut the forests and sell prime timberlands to real estate speculators? It's hard to say. Plum Creek clearly is entering a new phase of its young corporate incarnation. In some ways, it is starting over in Maine, and its behavior will largely be governed by social license.

It must be distressing for Mainers to learn that Maine's timber companies once again are overcutting the state's forests, according to a September report released by the Maine Forest Service. Forests exist on the scale of centuries, while most corporations exist on the scale of quarterly profit reports. That's why society must set the groundrules for sustainable forestry, both through the political system and through our marketplace choices as consumers.

A few years ago, an executive for International Paper foreshadowed today's headlines in a comment quoted by forester Gordon Robinson in his book, The Forest and the Trees. "Hell Robbie. We're on sustained yield," IP's Jude White said. "When we clean up the timber in the West, we'll return to New England, where the industry began."

This time around, if the public remains vigilant, perhaps the industry will get it right.


Steve Thompson is a natural resource consultant and forest conservationist living in Whitefish, Montana.