by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
March 26, 1998
Plum Creek Timber Company recently announced that it intends to sell 1600 acres of riverfront land in the Doney Lake area north of Ovando.
The area is rich in wildlife and waterfowl. Because of Plum Creek's open lands policy, it has been open to recreationists for years. That situation will probably change if the land is sold to a private individual.
Plum Creek's announcment shocked area sportsmen, snowmobilers and business owners who called a meeting last week in Seeley Lake to discuss the situation.
That these people were stunned by the announcement was also news to Plum Creek officials.
"Frankly, I'm surprised at the level of interest in this property," Jerry Sorenson, land use manager for Plum Creek said last Wednesday.
About 30 people crowded into the Forest Service conference room to hear Sorenson and others explain the company's intentions. Local residents wanted to know if Plum Creek would consider a proposal to transfer the land to government ownership.
"We would take a good faith look at that," Sorenson said, adding that he could give local residents 30 days to form a plan or come up with a buy-out option "that would have some practicality and reason to it." Any plan must meet Plum Creek's economic objectives, he said.
The Ovando-area acreage, appraised by Plum Creek at $3 million, is divided into two separate parcels, both of which front on the North Fork of the Blackfoot River. Doney Lake, which is actually an irrigation reservoir, is included in one of the parcels.
Snowmobilers are upset by the sale announcement because a portion of the trail connecting Seeley Lake and Lincoln is located on the Plum Creek parcels that will be offered for sale.
The local snowmobile club has been "blind-sided" by the announcement, according to Ron Ogden, president of the Seeley Lake Driftriders. Snowmobilers, he explained, have used the trail that connects Seeley Lake and Lincoln since the 1950s. Closure of that trail would have a significant economic impact on both communities, he said.
If Plum Creek's land is sold, snowmobilers will be forced to find an alternative route between Lincoln and Seeley Lake. Hunters would also lose access to the area, which lies next to a state-owned game range.
"This is one good lesson," Seeley Lake District Ranger Tim Love said at last week's meeting. "We can never take for granted Plum Creek landfor sportsmen or recreationists. I always tell people it's private land."
Love has worked with area snowmobile clubs for the past two years to develop a new snowmobile route across the North Fork of the Blackfoot River. Unfortunately, both the existing route, and the preferred alternative route that the clubs have identified, go through the acreage that Plum Creek plans to sell.
Government acquisition of the property would help protect wildlife values, but according to several people who spoke at last week's meeting, it would not solve the problem with the snowmobile trail, which also crosses Plum Creek land in other areas.
Frank Netherton, Plum Creek supervisor at Seeley Lake, pointed out that the situation "illustrates a need to keep the (snowmobile) trail system on ground that is more likely to be stable forever, on Forest Service or State."
Plum Creek Timber Company has historically managed its holdings in Montana for longterm timber management. However, after the company acquired a substantial amount of land from Champion Timberlands in the mid-1990s, it began taking a closer look at timber productivity. According to Sorenson, several acreages have been identified for disposition because they have "a higher and better use" than longterm timber management.
Plum Creek currently has $20 million worth of "higher and better use" real estate on the market in Western Montana, Sorenson explained.
However, the Doney Lake properties weren't among the higher-and-better-use lands initially identified in the Blackfoot Valley.
"This wasn't in our gunsights," Sorenson remarked.
According to Sorenson, Plum Creek's appraisal of the Doney Lake land came after two potential buyers approached the company and offered them "a substantial amount of money" for the land along the North Fork of the Blackfoot River.
"They certainly got our interest," Sorenson said. Plum Creek determined that selling the property would return more money to the company than holding it for longterm timber management, he said. The intent of the buyers, he explained, was to build 2 to 4 homes on the two parcels of land, and manage the property as a private estate.
However, the deal fell through, he said, and Plum Creek's plan is to now offer the property for sale on the open market this spring.
Because of Powell County zoning regulations and Plum Creek's access restrictions, Sorenson believes the land will probably not be heavily developed. "You're not going to see a big subdivision, I'm convinced of that," he said.
"Part of what's driving the value of these lands is the exclusive privacy that they offer," Sorenson said. "That's a major part of the value of the property."
Sorenson pointed out that company biologists feel a sale to a conservation buyer would be compatible with wildlife concerns. Although there was disagreement with that perception at last week's meeting, representatives of conservation groups offered little hope for any other outcome.
"A conservation buyer is the most likely route this will take," according to Brad Borden, state chairman of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. He echoed statements by others in the room when he said that conservation groups would be reluctant to purchase and hold the land without a guarantee that a government agency could eventually buy it.
Birney Hall of The Nature Conservancy said his organization might be interested in helping, "if we were guaranteed that a public agency would take it," he said. He pointed out that conservation groups "are really strapped for money" right now. "We (TNC) are $15 million in the red right now with the Johnsrud Park acquisition," he said. The Nature Conservancy is currently helping the Bureau of Land Management acquire about 10 miles of riverfront property along the Blackfoot River Corridor near Missoula.
Several other ideas were discussed during the meeting, including working with the Trust for Public Lands in Bozeman. This group has submitted a proposal to Congress to fund the purchase of Plum Creek land surrounding Lindbergh Lake.
Local residents are not giving up. Two Seeley Lake businessmen, Jack Rich and Wayne Heaton, agreed to try and form an acquisition plan that could be presented to Plum Creek within 30 days.
For more information contact Rich or Heaton at Seeley Lake.