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Potential hazards concern Legacy project

by Brandon Roberts & Western News
| December 8, 2008 11:00 PM

Potential environmental hazards have forced the Montana Legacy Project to put its plans for Kootenai National Forest on the back burner.

A recent study of wind patterns and asbestos levels in tree bark around the W.R. Grace mine north of Libby has potential buyers of the adjacent 13,000 acres up Pipe Creek waiting.

Selected by Plum Creek Timber Co., The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land, the proposed acreage is now held in an option to buy.

“In the course of performing due diligence in purchasing the land for this project, we need to see what kind of hazards are out there, including environmental hazards,” said Chris Byrant, The Nature Conservancy’s western Montana director of outreach.

Bryant said the land has been put into an option to buy but is no longer part of any phase of the Legacy Lands. That option will expire three years from now.

Bryant said they would not want to purchase lands with “the potential for an environmental hazard.”

“Basically, we agreed to move the lands into an option by request from the conservation organizations,” said Kathy Budinick, director of communications for Plum Creek.

Budinick said the lands are chosen based on a “coming together of Plum Creek and the conservation groups. There is lots of back and forth and each group had different ideas about what lands to put in and not put in.”

She also said that Plum Creek wanted to keep lands within proximity of their mills in Kalispell and Columbia Falls.

“It is better for us to maintain lands closer to the mills,” she said.

Eric Love, Northern Rockies director with the trust, said they want to know exactly what they are acquiring.

“Our goal for now and next summer is to sit down with elected officials, timber industry and business leaders so folks can decide what they want to see for the future of this forested landscape,” Love said.

Love said the trust might hold a public forum, but next spring and summer they will conduct further environmental assessments on the acreage.

John Konzen, Lincoln County commissioner, said the three-year option would give local officials time to explore alternatives for the lands, which could include a community forest.

“The community could own a piece of land, much like a trust with the ability to generate revenue and maintain multiple-use status,” Konzen said. “We are going to explore the community forest and see if we can be proactive and move on it.”

With the glacial process required for forest management by the federal government, Konzen said the county is interested in seeing the lands remain in either state or local control.

The KNF lands were originally included in the Legacy project, which has three phases of purchases ending in December 2010. It includes the sale of 310,000 acres privately owned by Plum Creek to the tune of $500 million.

Of the total acres, 111,000 are slated for federal acquisition, another 111,000 for the state and the remainder is being worked out, Love said. 

“The plan is for the purchased lands to be transferred into a mixture of private, state and federal ownership,” a June 2008 press release states. “The lands sold into private ownership will be subject to conservation easements that will restrict subdivision and home development. A key goal is the continuation of public access to these lands for hunting, fishing, camping and recreation, as Plum Creek allowed during its ownership.”

A contract contingency allows Plum Creek to continue timber harvests for another 10 years, with a possible five-year extension, and would maintain productive timber management.