Georgia landbuyer reaches out to local officials

| April 21, 2020 8:38 AM

Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck said he has received assurances from the new owners of a massive stretch of northwest Montana that the public will retain access to the timberland.

Georgia-based Southern Pine Plantations finalized a deal with Weyerhaeuser to scoop up 630,000 acres of timberland for $145 million in cash in March. When the then-pending sale was announced late last year, local officials blanched at the prospect of losing access to forestland.

In recent weeks, officials with Southern Pine Plantations, a real estate company, have sought to allay concerns regarding access. Eric Moody, a representative of the firm, told Hungry Horse News last month that the company planned to continue block management.

Speaking at a Lincoln County Board of Commissioners meeting April 15, Peck said he had received similar assurances from Pat Patton, an executive with the company, during a phone call earlier in the week.

“He’s been up front with us,” Peck told fellow commissioners. “At least he did reach out. That’s more than Weyerhaeuser ever did.”

Peck said the company had no potential buyers lined up and had hired on members of Weyerhaeuser’s forestry staff to manage the property in the interim. The land would remain open for activities like hunting in the near future, he said.

In a telephone interview after the meeting, Peck said that did not mean Southern Pine Plantations would not eventually find one or more buyers for the property. But they do seem willing to keep lines of communication open with local officials, he said.

“I thought it was a good conversation, but they’re in the business of buying land and selling land,” Peck said. “In the meantime, they are going to continue to manage it at some level.”

There have been conversations between conservation groups, timber organizations and state as well as local officials on what — if any — tools were available to keep the land open, but Peck said the talks remain nebulous.

An early and vocal critic of the sale, Peck said he appreciated that representatives from Southern Pine Plantations reached out to him.

“My issue was with Weyerheauser and the way they went about it,” he said. “And I still have an issue with them about it. They should have known better. They should have asked, in my opinion, at least Stimson, but the whole thing was secret, the way they handled it. It’s all over now. It is what it is.”

Loss of access to the land could mean dire consequences for the county’s economy. Prior to the announcement of the sale to Southern Pine Plantations, local officials held out hope a timber company might buy up the property and open a mill. The existing draw for hunters, anglers and hikers also was thrown into jeopardy by the land acquisition.

The prospect of Southern Pine Plantations doing the acquiring also raised hackles. The company drew public ire after it sold vast tracts of land to private owners in Idaho who turned around and gated the property. Peck said the company “learned a lot” from the sale and ensuing uproar as locals lost access to land they had hunted and hiked on for decades.

Patton “was very open with me about it,” Peck recalled. “That was probably the low point, that sale. They weren’t real proud of it, I guess is the way he described it.”

Peck, who was the first to name Southern Pine Plantations as the potential new owner, also told the board of commissioners that he impressed upon Patton the importance of the land to the community.

“You guys bought the property, so you own it,” he recounted saying. “Just so you understand, you guys just bought a hole the size of Rhode Island in northwest Montana that’s had over a century of use.”