The Bangor Daily News
Thursday, October 8, 1998

Plum Creek Timber firm seeks to shed 'evil' image

By Deborah Turcotte, Of the NEWS Staff-- BANGOR - Plum Creek Timber Co. wants Mainers to know it plans to be a good neighbor, despite many environmental groups' not sending out the welcome wagon. One day after announcing it is the new owner of 905,000 acres of Maine woods purchased for $180 million from South African Pulp and Paper Industries Ltd., Plum Creek officials were making the rounds of personal introductions, as if extending an olive branch; it met with the Bangor Daily News editorial staff Wednesday and said it would meet soon with environmental groups.


The company doesn't want to be misunderstood. Having been called the ''Darth Vader'' of forestry practices, a term to denote the most evil clear-cutter of timberlands, Rick Holley, president of Plum Creek, said that statement has been retracted by a Washington state congressman who made it in the early 1980s.


''He never went out to see what we were doing,'' Holley said.


In 1990, The Wall Street Journal wrote a story, headlined ''Unkindest Cut,'' about the extensive clear-cutting policies of lumber and paper companies during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the article, U.S. Rep. Rod Chandler, R-Wash., is quoted as saying about Plum Creek: ''Within the industry, they're considered the Darth Vader of the state of Washington. And I think they've earned it.''


Chandler no longer lives in Washington state, but is a partner in a Washington, D.C., consulting firm. He couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.


On Dec. 2, 1993, Sharon Kanareff, director of corporate communications for Plum Creek, wrote in a letter to the editor of the Seattle Times that Chandler was quoted in a ''local publication'' as ''wishing I had back the statement.''


''They're setting a new standard in the industry ... my hat's off to them,'' the letter quoted Chandler. The name of the Seattle-based publication in which Chandler's comments appeared is not known, but it was not the Seattle Times or Seattle Post-Intelligencer, according to the newspapers' librarian.


Regardless, the name has stuck, and environmental groups are quick to use it, Holley said. Plum Creek's public relations machine has been fighting it since 1993.


On Wednesday, Holley extended a challenge to Jonathan Carter of the Forest Ecology Network to visit his operations in the Pacific Northwest.


''We will pay a first-class airline ticket and have all expenses paid - hotel, food - for Mr. Carter to come out and we'll give him a tour of our lands to show him what we're doing,'' Holley said.


Carter and officials from Forest Ecology Network were unavailable for comment Wednesday.


The timberlands company, however, is quick to note that misconceptions of it are fueled by its own silence. ''We never shared it [information about the company] with anyone,'' Holley said. Now, the company will allow groups to audit the lands through land tours.


''We want to show independently that we have been economically and environmentally responsible,'' Holley said.


The company does have a Web site, and the Natural Resources Council of Maine has used it to gather information for its own point of view. On Tuesday, the Augusta-based group blasted Sappi's sale of the North Woods land to Plum Creek, calling the Seattle-based group ''an aggressive timber and real-estate development company.'' On Wednesday, the group's assessment of Plum Creek had not changed.


''Maine's North Woods is wide open for development,'' said Judy Berk, a director of the Natural Resources Council. ''I haven't been out there [Pacific Northwest] to see if they've improved or not. I'm not making any judgments except for what they've put on the Web site. We have to base our opinions on what we hear from environmentalists out there and from what we read in newspapers out there.''


The company is fighting a perception problem with environmental groups, Holley said. And some groups will continue to distribute information, ''or put in print lies,'' to keep the organizations active, he said.


''We will meet with more modern environmental groups that say 'let's seek a balance between economical and environmental issues,''' Holley said.


Plum Creek Timber is now a publicly traded master limited partnership, but, according to Holley, the company is considering restructuring into a publicly traded real estate investment trust, so corporations such as Fidelity Investments, which are prevented from placing financial interest in the company, can do so.


Converting to a REIT, however, ''does not mean we are getting into the traditional real estate business,'' according to the company's second-quarter 1998 report to shareholders. ''We remain one of the nation's largest timberland owners, and our focus on expanding our resource base remains the foundation of our business strategy.''


Though the company has sold land in Washington state to developers, Holley said the parcels were in areas on the fringe of Seattle's economic expansion. In Maine, he said, there are no current plans to sell any of the 905,000 acres to developers.


''We won't say we won't develop any of it,'' Holley said Wednesday, noting that if the Maine market calls for residential or recreational expansion, his company will consider it. ''At the present time, though, no, we won't develop it.''


Holley also said he expected to hire most of the 70 Sappi employees who manage the lands. And he said the company has a policy of allowing public recreational uses on its lands.


''We believe in 100 percent public access,'' he said.


Holley added that his company prefers to follow ''sustainable forest'' practices.


''It's not a clear-cut issue,'' he said. ''It's not a spotted owl issue, as it is in the Northwest. It's a cutting-tree issue.''


Plum Creek officials contacted Gov. Angus King's office before Tuesday's announcement of its purchase. Holley said the governor wanted to be sure Plum Creek would ''cut less but grow more.''


''We need to find a way, in this industry, to grow more trees and to grow better trees; to put growth and harvest in equilibrium,'' Holley said.


On company lands where Douglas firs are grown, however, there has to be clear-cutting, Holley said.


''If you don't clear-cut, and instead thin them out, they won't regrow fast enough,'' he said.


Plum Creek plants about 600 to 700 trees per acre, ''which is too much for an acre,'' Holley said. Harvesters later will cut down the weaker trees so others can become stronger, he said, noting the company planted 15 million trees last year.


The Maine land purchase includes negotiations between the state and Sappi for conservation easements along 29 miles of Moosehead Lake and 15 miles on the Kennebec River's West Outlet. Plum Creek and the state are negotiating an easement for 14 miles on the north side of Flagstaff Lake.


''In areas where it makes sense to have a conservation easement, we will do that,'' Holley said.


Plum Creek Timber is the sixth-largest private timberland owner now, with 3.3 million acres including forests in Washington, Montana, Idaho, Arkansas and Louisiana. With approximately 2,400 employees, the company harvests and sells logs in both the export and domestic markets, and manufactures and markets lumber, plywood and medium density fiberboard products.


Holley said the company has no plans to mill the logs here, but will transport them to other mills or manufacturers. Plum Creek also has agreed to supply hardwood trees for Sappi's paper mill in Skowhegan for the next 40 years.

Copyright © 1998, Bangor Daily News Inc.