April 08, 2020

Veteran Montana conservationist criticizes Plum Creek tactics

A veteran of Montana’s wildlife conservation efforts criticized Plum Creek’s record out West on Monday and urged Mainers to “drive a hard bargain” as the company pursues its development plans for Moosehead Lake.

A Plum Creek representative, meanwhile, said the company has a long history of working with conservation groups across the nation.

Bruce Farling, executive director of Trout Unlimited in Montana, took aim at what he called Plum Creek Timber Co.’s overly aggressive business practices and development attempts in his home state.

Farling came to Maine last week at the invitation of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, although Farling said he paid for his trip out of his own pocket.

NRCM, which featured Farling at events in Orono and Portland, is one of the most vocal critics of Plum Creek’s plans for 975 house lots and two resorts near Moosehead.

Farling accused Plum Creek – one of the nation’s largest private landowners – of increasing tensions in Montana by threatening to sell off tens of thousands of acres of prized recreational lands. Organizations opposed to the development have then been forced to raise money to try to buy conservation easements or the land from the company for high prices.

“There’s this sort of ‘Buy it or else’ attitude with them,” Farling said during an interview in Bangor. “They don’t have many friends. They have a tendency to come and push people around and bully.”

Plum Creek owns more than 1 million acres in Montana. In recent years, the company has announced plans to divest tens of thousands of acres deemed to hold a “higher value” as something other than timber stands.

The company estimates that roughly 1.7 million acres of the 8.2 million acres of Plum Creek land nationwide will be sold over time for development, recreation or conservation.

Plum Creek has negotiated several major deals with groups hoping to keep the land from becoming subdivisions or kingdom lots for multi-millionaires.

The Nature Conservancy, for example, has worked with Montana-based organizations to buy 88,000 acres of Plum Creek land over several years. The national organization purchased the first 43,000 acres in 2003 for $32 million. Earlier this year, The Trust for Public Land agreed to a $9.4 million deal for 7,204 acres of Plum Creek land.

Farling said that while those deals may be good for conservation, he suggested the company was making enormous profits from Montanans just trying to keep land open to hunting, fishing and other traditional activities.

“One thing I am trying to tell people in Maine to do is to drive a hard bargain,” he said.

Kathy Budinick, a spokeswoman for Plum Creek, said the company is proud of its conservation record. The company has helped protect more than a half-million acres nationwide, she said.

Budinick said that real estate and development are a growing part of Plum Creek’s business. The real estate division accounted for $292 million of the company’s $1.6 billion in total revenues last year, according to company financial reports.

She also dismissed Farling’s suggestion of Plum Creek using a “buy it or else” strategy to pressure conservation groups.

“We are primarily a timber company, but we certainly realize that some of our lands have higher values beyond forestry,” Budinick said. “We do sell some of our land, and we have long partnered with others to [achieve] conservation outcomes across the country.”

Budinick also pointed out that Plum Creek’s current plan for the Moosehead Lake region includes more than 400,000 acres of conservation land.

She said the company revised its concept plan for the Moosehead region after gathering extensive public feedback.

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