Weyerhaeuser Renews Commitment to Free Public Land Access

Posted: June 20, 2016

Source: Flathead Beacon

Montana forest landsSettling concerns among outdoor recreationists and state officials for the time being, Weyerhaeuser Co. has signed an agreement with the state of Montana to allow free public access on its vast landholdings for anotheryear.

Weyerhaeuser, a Washington-based timber giant that merged with Plum Creek Timber Co. in February, renewed Plum Creek’s annual contract with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks late last month through the state’s block management program. The agreement, which was voluntarily renewed by Plum Creek for decades, will allow hunters and other recreationists to access the private land in exchange for state game wardens patrolling the property.

Weyerhaeuser, which now employs some former Plum Creek company officials in leadership roles, owns 880,000 acres in Montana. Of those lands, the block management agreement allows public access to 709,927 acres in this corner of the state and 59,777 acres near Missoula.

“Here in Montana, Weyerhaeuser does not have any plans to make changes to the current access policy,” said Tom Ray, a former resources and manufacturing leader at Plum Creek and the new Montana resource team leader for Weyerhaeuser.

The block management agreement with Montana was set to expire May 31.

“We had a long, positive working relationship with Plum Creek and we really hope that continues long into the future with Weyerhaeuser,” said Lee Anderson, FWP’s regional warden captain.

“At least in the short term, there isn’t anything changing. That is something that could happen down the road though. You just never know, but we hope we can continue this policy long into the future.”

Concerns have emerged among Montanans that former Plum Creek lands could be closed to the public or require a fee for recreational purposes, as in other states.

Just last week, the company ended its agreement with the state of Louisiana for public access at a 25,000-acre wildlife management area that has for decades been a popular site for hunters. The state said it and the company could not come to terms on an agreement to continue allowing public access.

Last month, Weyerhaeuser increased the fees for hunters and campers to use land in Southwest Washington. The recreation permits jumped from $160 annually to $300 per family but do allow year-round access instead of seasonal access. People who want to hike, bike or ride a horse on Weyerhaeuser property can buy a $50 non-motorized permit. The company does not allow ATVs or snowmobiles on its land in Washington.

The company’s heightened fees and rules have been a long-standing source of contention in other states, and after the merger with Plum Creek those concerns spread to Montana.

A public records request with the governor’s office revealed discussions among state officials focused on the Weyerhaeuser merger and how it could impact lands and mills in Northwest Montana.

“Today we need a Weyerhaeuser letter complete. I think it should cover both access and assurances there will be no plant closures,” Montana Gov. Steve Bullock stated in a Nov. 17, 2015 email to staff days after the pending merger was announced.

Two days later, Bullock sent a letter to Doyle Simons, president and CEO of Weyerhaeuser, that stated, “I am writing to ask for your assurance that operations in Montana will not be substantially impacted by this merger and that the access that Montanans have enjoyed for years will not be gated off.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester issued a similar letter Nov. 18 to Simons.

Bullock touted the state’s long-standing relationship with Plum Creek and the importance of public access and lands in Montana. He referenced Plum Creek’s decision to “wisely” continue allowing free public access after the company acquired Champion International in 1993.

“I am very concerned that Weyerhaeuser may not fully appreciate Montana’s culture around this issue,” Bullock wrote in the letter. “It is my understanding that the company charges a fee for access to its lands in Oregon and Washington. That approach will not be well-received in Montana.”

Two weeks after Bullock sent the letter, Bob Harrington, forestry division administrator for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, briefed the governor on the potential impacts of the Weyerhaeuser-Plum Creek merger, pointing out possible mill closures looming in the future.

“Understand that this is just my crystal ball … I have nothing but intuition to base this on,” Harrington wrote Bullock on Dec. 11, 2015.

“In the short or long term, we should not assume Weyerhaeuser will retain the lands or mills in NW Montana. From a standing volume, productivity, and manufacturing viewpoint, they are an outlier in the new portfolio of lands and mills of Weyerhaeuser Corp. Some options they might be planning: Retain everything for immediate future and then transition later; close least profitable mills (stud, board, and/or plywood plant); continue selling HBU lands for real estate; Sell Montana mills and timberlands: likely purchasers are either Canadian, Roseburg, Potlatch, etc, who would likely reduce the manufacturing capacity as well.”

Harrington recommended Bullock press Weyerhaeuser on the importance of forest lands to Northwest Montana’s culture, economy, recreation and watersheds, and the market value of timber on private and state trust lands. He also recommended the governor seek a commitment to work with the state to maintain access to their lands and to ensure the sustainable supply of timber and residual products for the mills, and to protect the jobs of their employees in Montana.

Montana State Auditor Monica Lindeen, who also serves on the Montana Land Board, echoed the concerns of other state officials and similarly urged Weyerhaeuser to continue Plum Creek’s policy.

After the merger, Weyerhaeuser officials said manufacturing operations “will remain in Montana and the jobs associated with manufacturing will remain.” Company officials confirmed some positions would be relocated to Weyerhaeuser’s corporate headquarters in Seattle, while others would be eliminated over the next 24 months. Three management positions were eliminated in March.

Weyerhaeuser operates the former Plum Creek stud and plywood mills in Evergreen and plywood and medium density fiberboard plants, as well as a sawmill, in Columbia Falls. There is also the corporate headquarters, known as the Cedar Palace, in Columbia Falls. At the time of the merger, Plum Creek employed 759 people in Montana, including 633 in the manufacturing division.