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Plum Creek Land Sales Cause Flurry of Inquiries

by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
March, 1996

Plum Creek's recent announcement that it will begin selling some of its land in Western Montana has caused a flurry of interest from potential buyers.

"I've received hundeds of phone calls from people, most of them interested in buying land. Half of those calls were from people interested in buying land in either the Swan or Blackfoot Valleys," Jerry Sorenson, land use planner for Plum Creek, said at the March 28 meeting of the Swan Valley Ad Hoc Committee at Condon. Many of those calls came from local residents, he said.

"Rather than talk about planning, maybe I better just hold an auction!" he joked. Sorenson addressed about forty people at the Swan Valley Community Hall Thursday evening, where he was asked to explain Plum Creek's proposed land sales.

More than half of the people in attendance were Swan Valley residents or landowners. Others from Missoula, Kalispell and Columbia Falls came representing various government agencies, non-profit groups and one wood products business-all with an interest in natural resources issues in the Swan. A few University of Montana students working on Ad Hoc projects in the Swan also attended the meeting.

Sorenson skipped the land auction, and instead proceeded to explain why his company was in the process of selling or studying their land in Western Montana. He also refuted rumors that his company was in the process of liquidating lands in Montana.

"Timber is the core business for Plum Creek and it will remain the core business for some time," he said, adding that money from land sales will go to support timber management. The company owns six lumber mills in Montana and employs 1500 people.

Plum Creek purchased timberlands from Champion International Corporation in 1990 and has been studying their newly acquired lands. Plum Creek has been a limited partnership since 1989, and as such, Sorenson explained, has an obligation to maximize shareholder profits. Company personnel have determined that some Plum Creek land, especially some acquired recently from Champion, may have a "higher and better use" than for timber management, Sorenson explained.

Sorenson also pointed out that Plum Creek land is "private land-and it carries the same bundle of rights that you (small private landowners) people have."

The company has identified 34 areas totalling 150,000 acres that will be offered for sale or studied for possible exchange.

Of immediate interest to people at Seeley Lake is land at Placid Lake which will be offered for sale beginning this week. (See related article.) One is a 60-acre parcel, and the other is a 300-acre property known locally as "the Tex Baker homestead."

Sorenson also indicated that the land surrounding Marshall Lake in the Clearwater Valley, has been identified as a probable future study area. He explained that because that area represents one of the company's most solid blocks of ownership, it was not one of the first areas to be studied for possible sale or exchange, but it would probably be included in the future.

The company is also offering for sale or exchange 10 miles of riverfront property along the Blackfoot River northeast of Missoula between Johnsrud Park and River Bend Campground-land within the Blackfoot River Recreation Corridor-that may also be offered for sale, or possible exchange for timber land currently under federal (Bureau of Land Management) control.

Swan Valley Study Areas

Swan Valley lands identified as study areas include properties near Lindbergh Lake, Holland Lake, Van Lake, and along the Swan River at Piper Creek.

People at the meeting expressed concern that these lands were not simply being "studied" but might be sold without adjoining landowners or other local residents being notified.

Sorenson tried to alleviate their fears. "Our main interest is to exchange," he said, adding that "We are going to make a good faith effort to do timely exchanges." He indicated that the company is estalishing relationships with conservation groups. "We hope to attract conservation buyers," he said.

However, when questioned, he responded that Plum Creek would not place conservation easements on its land before it's sold. However, the company would explore conservation options and share that information for potential buyers, he said.

When asked whether the company would donate land for public recreation (such as what Champion International did by donating land at Salmon Lake for a public campground) Sorenson replied, "No. With obligations to shareholders it makes no sense."

He explained that Plum Creek has no interest in getting involved in the "development business." It was more likely, he said, that they might either exchange the land for better timberlands elsewhere or sell to "the very rich people" who want large estates.

Lands identified in the Swan for possible exchange or sale include high-value waterfront real estate. At Lindbergh Lake, Plum Creek has hired a Missoula firm-WGM Group-to assess land use values and opportunities, and to better understand how grizzly bears use that area.

Residents at the meeting questioned Sorenson about the future of Van Lake, a popular local recreation area located on Plum Creek land.

Sorenson repeatedly emphasized that, in the Swan Valley, no land will be sold until it has been studied. Plum Creek, he said, supports comprehensive planning. He explained that Plum Creek feels its land use principles complement environmental principles.

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