County commissioners to lobby governor on land deal

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The Lincoln County Board of Commissioners is working with the Montana Forest Collaborative Network in petitioning Gov. Steve Bullock for help retaining access to a vast swath of land up for private sale.

Chairman Mark Peck (D-1) said the effort is aimed at finding a “Montana solution” for the land during the county board’s Jan. 8 meeting. At stake is about 630,000 acres of timberland open to residents for a variety of uses for decades.

Weyerhaeuser Company announced the sale of land, which includes property in Lincoln County, for $145 million in cash in December, but kept quite on potential buyers. Residents hoped a lumber company had opted to purchase the property.

Instead, Georgia-based real estate firm Southern Pine Plantations emerged as the likely buyer. Peck, who revealed the Macon County, Georgia company as the purchaser, called it a “disaster” for Lincoln County.

Southern Pine Plantations has a history of selling land to private owners who then restrict property access, Peck said, calling on residents to unite in opposition to the sale.

Officials worry that if the land becomes restricted, it would end the long hoped for regrowth of the timber industry in the region and dampen efforts to bolster economic activity through outdoor recreation and tourism.

Seeking to allay those concerns, a Montana-based law firm hired by Southern Pine Plantations said in a statement that the company had no plans to change public access to the land.

But Peck and others worry the Georgia firm will turn around and sell the property to owners who will place restrictions on the land. He said that the new effort was not aimed at blocking the sale, but rather finding a compromise.

“Everything they’re doing is legal,” Peck said. “But just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s right.”

Peck said he has not been in contact with either Southern Pine Plantations or its legal representatives in Montana. He did see the statement issued by Jamie Bowditch of the Missoula-based Boone Karlberg law firm on the sale.

“I don’t know for sure, but it looks like they tried to do some damage control by hiring a Montana attorney,” he said. “Everybody is trying to figure out who would invest $145 million just so everybody could hunt and fish and camp on [the land], so don’t tell me there’s going to be no changes on it.”

Weyerhaeuser officials said they expect to close the deal later this year. The company said it would keep its three Montana mills running following the sale.

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