Conservation deal tops $500 million

HELENA, MT More than 300,000 acres of critical habitat for threatened and endangered animals, including grizzly bears and lynx, will be transferred to public ownership in a $500 million deal with Plum Creek Timber. A ceremony was held Monday in Kalispell to sign the agreement.

Plum Creek Timber is turning over about a quarter of its Montana holdings in a deal backed by the federal government, which is pitching in $250 million, said U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.

The land includes huge parcels in the scenic Swan Valley north of Missoula, and near the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land said the land will be managed as a working forest with places of harvestable timber.

The deal, which involves the equivalent of 500 square miles, spans a region known as the Crown of the Continent, a place environmentalists say is one of the most intact ecosystems remaining in the country. The government is expected to eventually take ownership of a majority of the land.

In recent years Plum Creek has drawn the ire of environmentalists for selling off its land to private developers, sometimes turning forests into subdivisions. Critics have argued private owners were developing the land too quickly, closing off traditional access for locals and closing down logging.

Conservation groups said they will make sure the land remains open for recreational activities such as hunting and snowmobiling. Timber harvested on the land will still feed lumber mills owned by Plum Creek for at least the next 15 years, according to the arrangement.

Seattle-based Plum Creek, the nation's largest owner of private land, has a total of 1.2 million acres in Montana. The company said it agreed the best use for the land was conservation, combined with continued sustainable logging and public access.

"Plum Creek has a strong history of conservation and is pleased to partner in the sale of this important land to accommodate the public interest in its ecological, recreational and timber production values," said Rick Holley, president and chief executive officer.

Many details still need to be worked out. Eric Love with The Trust for Public Land said local communities will now help decide the fate of the land. He expects a series of meetings in the region.

Jamie Williams with The Nature Conservancy said the deal will be completed in three phases over the next three years. During that time, conservation groups will be raising about $250 million to help pay for it.

"The project truly represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sustain working forest lands that are the heart of Montana's rich quality of life and makes Montana special," Williams said.

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