Lincoln Co. leads effort to keep Weyerhaeuser land open to public

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Weyerhaeuser announced recently it would sell 630,000 acres of its lands in western Montana.

The Lincoln County Commissioners petitioned Gov. Steve Bullock earlier this month for assistance in assuring Weyerhaeuser’s 630,000 acres of Montana timberland remain available for public use and for long-term timber harvesting.

The outreach effort came just weeks after the company announced plans to sell its acreage located primarily in Flathead and Lincoln counties to Southern Pine Plantations for $145 million cash during the second quarter of 2020.

The Western News in Libby reported many residents had hoped the buyer would be a timber company. But Southern Pine, as advertised on the company’s website, is a Georgia-based timberland and real estate company “specializing in rural land acquisitions and sales.”

The company buys large swaths of acreage at a time, keeps some of the land that fits the company’s “long-term management goals; then sells some of the land as large investment blocks and some of the land as individual tracts.”

Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck told The Western News the company has a history of selling land to private owners who then restrict property access. Aside from the potential loss of public access, the publication reported “officials worry that if the land becomes restricted, it would end the long hoped for regrowth of the timber industry.”

When the pending sale was announced in December, Weyerhaeuser said the company’s three mills will remain open despite the sale. But Peck and others say that promise doesn’t seem like a guarantee.

“It’s utter insanity to sell your timber ground if you’re a timber company,” Peck said. “It’s just not adding up. The rest of the industry is just scratching their heads wondering what else is going on that we don’t know?”

Peck cites what has been happening in southern Idaho in recent years as he talks about what he and others think might be the fate of timberlands in Montana.

In 2016, the Idaho Statesman reported two billionaire brothers based in Texas, Dan and Farris Wilks, started buying sizable acreage parcels in Idaho that once belonged to Boise Cascade, a company that sold 172,000 acres of timberlands in the state to Southern Pine Plantations for $114 million.

As has been reported by multiple publications in Idaho in recent years, the Wilks brothers then began selling those lands to private buyers, placing gates on popular U.S. Forest Services roads and largely restricting public access.

And Montana doesn’t seem immune to this type of land ownership. The Wilks brothers already own a daunting amount of acreage in the state and according to the Wilks Ranch Brokers real estate website, the company is currently advertising four separate Montana ranches in Rosebud, Musselshell, Denton and Fergus counties.

The ranches collectively span more than 30,000 acres and are being sold for a combined value of more than $43 million.

This acreage doesn’t include what Wilks Ranch Montana Ltd. owns in Lincoln County, according to the Montana Cadastral. Data shows the company owns a dozen separate properties that were collectively appraised at more than $1 million in 2019. According to the Cadastral, Wilks Ranch Montana Ltd. does not own any holdings in Flathead County, where a good portion of Weyerhauser’s land sits.

Of Weyerhaeuser’s 630,000 acres in Montana, a little more than 590,000 acres are open to the public through a block management agreement with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Through the program, the state agency works with private landowners — primarily corporate timber companies — to open up their lands for public use. In exchange for doing so, FWP offers assistance to help patrol and enforce the lands. The agency will reach out to every entity in the program regularly in an effort to renew those agreements to be a part of block management.

Weyerhaeuser entered into its agreement with FWP in September 2019, but that agreement is slated to expire in the second quarter of 2020, around the same time Southern Pine is expected to take over ownership of the timberlands.

According to Dillon Tabish, spokesperson for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 1, the agency has asked Weyerhaeuser for a joint meeting with Southern Pine to discuss a possible renewal of the program in order to keep the lands open for public use. The agency is awaiting a response.

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