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Timber company drops plan for forest roads

/ Source: The Associated Press

The nation's largest owner of timberland disclosed Monday that it will no longer pursue changes in agreements governing its use of U.S. Forest Service roads — changes that critics complained could transform forests into housing subdivisions.

Critics of the proposed changes had included President-elect Barack Obama and Montana's junior senator.

Changes in the agreements would benefit the public, but "given the lack of receptivity, we have decided not to go forward," Plum Creek Timber Co. Chief Executive Officer Rick Holley wrote in a letter to Missoula County, which opposed altering the agreements.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey indicated as recently as last week that the changes negotiated privately by the Forest Service and Plum Creek would become final before he leaves office when the Bush administration ends this month.

Rey, a former lobbyist for the timber industry, said the company's decision is "not good news for the federal government or the public at large." He had maintained the changes secured new benefits for the government rather than for Plum Creek.

Rey declined to comment further on Monday.

Critics argued that the changes sought by Plum Creek would have allowed it to pave Forest Service roads and make it easier for the company to develop vacation homes in Montana's mountain forests. Such housing tracts could saddle local governments with costly services such as fire protection in remote places, they said.

Soon after a Montana campaign appearance, Obama said in July that the planned changes would further jeopardize public access to hunting and fishing areas.

Plum Creek owns more than 7 million acres nationwide, of which about 1 million acres are in Montana. Company spokeswoman Kathy Budinick said the decision to drop its support for changing the agreements would have little impact beyond Montana because the company's use of national forest roads is not widespread outside the state.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., had focused his criticism on the private nature of the negotiations between Plum Creek and the Forest Service and instigated a review of the talks by the federal General Accountability Office.

"This is about transparency in government and making sure everyone impacted is at the table so they have their piece heard," he said Monday. "This is, after all, public land."

Tester and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, have asked the Agriculture Department's inspector general to investigate the private negotiations. That request remained pending when Seattle-based Plum Creek sent its letter.

Missoula County officials were "as surprised as anyone" by Plum Creek's letter, said Jean Curtiss, a county commissioner.

"Our concern was that Rey was going to sign this at the last minute, as a "here's what you get as I go out the door kind of thing," Curtiss said.