Largest Conservation Deal in History a Taxpayer Funded Crapshoot?

Cutting Deals with Big Timber's Darth Vader

The wild forests of North America have almost completely disappeared over the past century and a half, and so too have the great timber barons that stole these lands from the public trust. Even so, the corporate pillage continues to be celebrated, and the companies left standing are still being bailed out.

Several weeks ago Congress passed the engorged HR 2419, the “Food and Energy Act of 2008,” better known to the rest of us lay folk as the annual Farm Bill. Along with the laundry list of lavish handouts to the agricultural industry, there were also two fat pork loins cooked up for timber companies, tucked deep in the 682-page sham of legislation.

Thanks to Montana Senator Max Baucus, a Democrat, timber giant Weyerhaeuser was granted $182 million in tax breaks along with Plum Creek Timber, one of the largest private land owners in the state, which received a whopping $500 million. On May 23, Sen. Baucus announced his deal with Plum Creek CEO Rick Holley standing by his side.

It was payback. Employees of Plum Creek have donated almost $20,000 to Baucus this past year, and the company spent $200,000 in lobbying fees during the period in which the Farm Bill was being debated in Congress.

The forest removal industry has for decades been rewarded for its bad behavior. They have been given unfettered access to log on our public lands, with subsidies aiding them along the way. Even when push came to shove they have always made out like bandits, sharing little of their uber-wealth with the public who helped finance their success — not to mention ever giving back to the habitat they profited from by destroying.

If I sound bitter, it’s because I am.

Plum Creek, after cutting virtually all the good trees on its Montana land, is about to be compensated for its loss by so-called conservationists. Last week the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land announced a backroom deal, brokered by Sen. Baucus himself, that would transfer up to 300,000 acres of the company’s despoiled property over to the groups for the amount of $510 million. It is to become the largest, most expensive conservation deal in U.S. history.

Nonetheless, all that money isn’t going to be paid by the green groups alone. In fact, the Federal government will cover half of the tab, thanks to Sen. Baucus of course, with Montanans paying another $100 million. The rest will be raised by the conservationists who claim they are actually saving the land from residential development.

It should be clear that Plum Creek doesn’t deserve the hundreds of millions of dollars it’s going to receive from taxpayers. Instead the company ought to be the one cutting checks for all the environmental damage they’ve caused to grizzly and fish habitat throughout the state over the years.

Here’s a little information about Montana’s non-forest policy that Plum Creek Timber and others have exploited: The state is essentially a resource treasure chest that has no acting forest practices in place to regulate private lands. In short, it’s a deregulated, boondoggle, free-for-all. And Plum Creek, in this case, liquidated its assets (trees) and is now selling off their land under the guise of conservation, paid in large part by the public.

However, what’s being conserved is still up for debate.

“I recently flew over some of the Plum Creek land that the public will eventually get west of Seeley Lake, Montana, and it was mile after mile of clearcuts,” says Michael Garrity, Executive Director of Helena, Montana based Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “That is probably one reason Plum Creek agreed to sell it and not develop the land into vacation subdivisions. Who wants a vacation home in a middle of a clearcut?”

So let’s get this straight, Plum Creek, once dubbed the Darth Vader of the timber industry by a Republican congressman from Washington state, builds logging roads through prime grizzly habitat, pollutes rivers, and clearcuts forests just so they can sell it off at a huge profit, and somehow we’re supposed to be exited about a deal that will stop some development, but not all of it?

Yes, that’s right, Plum Creek can still log on some of this land, but they can only do so if certified “sustainable” by a third-party verifier.

“Many of these third party certificates are worthless if the public is not allowed to over see them,” says Garrity. “And it is not clear if the public will.”

This fact alone should raise the hackles of taxpayers who are footing the majority of Plum Creek’s bill. They may have little input about what actually happens on the land they helped pay for. The agreement will also allow the Forest Service, an agency wrought with a history of corruption and mismanagement, to oversee half of the land down the road.

It is just one more tale of environmental compromise that many greens have for far too long been forced to accept in Montana and the Pacific Northwest when dealing with resource extraction outfits like Plum Creek and conservationists such as the Nature Conservancy. These guys run the only game in town, which is fixed at the highest levels by senators like Max Baucus who operate behind the curtains of power with impunity.

So how good is this deal when all is said and done?

“Nothing is good about 150 years of corporate subsidies, but the unintended consequences are less evil than the subdivisions alternative,” says veteran forest activist Steve Kelly of Bozeman, Montana. “Oh, there will still be subdivisions, just a lot fewer. Good, or excellent, is never an option in a rigged world limited to choosing between the lesser of two evils.”

Joshua Frank is co-editor of Dissident Voice and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published by AK Press in June 2008. Check out the Red State Rebels site. Read other articles by Joshua.

4 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Tom Joad said on July 10th, 2008 at 12:06pm #

    We have something similar going on down here in Florida, with U.S Sugar being paid $1.7 billion of the taxpayers money for land which the taxpayers will then have the spend a couple of billion more to restore.

  2. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 10th, 2008 at 1:18pm #

    What I remember about Montana from my 23 years with the Forest Service is that Montana has fires that “we only put out when their time has come” because (natural) winds blow 80-100 mph. And, there is a Mormon clique in the Forest Service, centered in Utah and Montana, called “The Montana Mafia.”

    I strongly doubt that Weyerhaeuser or any other timber giant does anything in Montana that they don’t do in California and Oregon and Washington state. Or that they would do in the deep south, had it not all been turned into timber plantations by the end of the 19th century.

  3. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 10th, 2008 at 6:19pm #

    Uh, you got it straight, Joshua. I was best friends with Don Miller, the first Regional Archaeologist (in about 1970) in the California Region of the Forest Service. He opposed the Go Road on the Klamath National Forest but pretty much had to follow the Agency’s line and support it. And when he went public (in about 1995) and told a reporter on the Sacramento Bee that a federal court in Arizona had required the FS in Arizona to conduct archaeological surveys before any ground breaking activities were started (as required by ARPA), including timber sales, and explained that the organization was ignoring that court order in California because California is a different part of the Forest Service organizational structure from Arizona, his days were numbered. Under Don the archaeology program in the California Region had grown from one person to over forty, and he was the first (or second) president of the California Society of Archaeologists. But the Agency imported a Mormon Mafia Forester from Washington DC, to head up the Natural Resources Department in California, and be Don’s boss. (Don was an Archaeologist, Foresters run the Forest Service.) This forester was strong on “getting out the cut” — which after all was (and is) the Agency’s main source of “paying its way.” The guy saw things rather simply and Really Believed in the free enterprise system. Don lasted maybe two years working for him.

    It is atrocious what happens to old growth timber on Forest Service lands these days. But it’s been happening for centuries. Howsoever, Plum Creek is a battle more than worth fighting for, and I hear tell that “Environmentalism is the new Marxism, the new secular religion.”

    So you got the cards, Joshua. Play ’em tough.

  4. Kristin Kolb said on July 11th, 2008 at 3:05pm #

    This is the third so-called “largest conservation deal in history” I’ve heard about in the past 2 years.

    Which certification system will be used and how will logging practices be monitored? I’m curious. The devil’s in the details.

    Green in the new black, especially with timber giants.