Since last spring, Plum Creek Timber Company and the Forest Service have claimed that thousands of miles of old logging roads in western Montana can automatically be turned into driveways for second homes and cabins. Such guaranteed access would make Plum Creek's 1.2 million acres in the state worth much more to buyers. The industry-friendly policy would also be applied to private timberlands across the country, most of which can be reached only by crossing Forest Service land.
But that road agreement, brokered by Ag Undersecretary Mark Rey, was made behind closed doors, without comment from the public or from the counties that would bear the burden of providing services and infrastructure for all those new homes springing up in the woods. And the blanket agreement contradicts Forest Service policy and precedent, which for decades has held that easements granted for timber-hauling do not automatically provide residential access (see our earlier story "Easing into development"). County commissioners and Montana Sen. Jon Tester, D, demanded an investigation of the shady deal-brokering. They've also repeatedly requested that the Forest Service supply copies of all of the affected easements, a demand the agency has not met.
Now, the Government Accountability Office has released a letter saying that the deal may well be illegal, despite Rey's assertion that the old easements allow any kind of use. From the Missoulian's story:
... the GAO concluded Rey's plan “may effect a substantial change” in the minimal access Congress intended. And because it would apply to all boilerplate Road and Trails Act easements, and not just Plum Creek easements, “this provision could have a nationwide impact,” the report said.The GAO's report faulted Rey for failing to address "this highly complicated matter in a systematic public way.”
"As I've said from the get-go,” Tester said Friday, “public decisions like this need public input. And I'll make darn sure we get all concerns ironed out.
“This report sounds all sorts of alarms about the way the Forest Service is doing business. It tells me Montana is getting a bum deal on Forest Service's road access plan, and that's exactly why I wanted the GAO to look into it.”
Depending on the response -- or lack thereof -- from Forest Service and Plum Creek, Tester may request a full investigation.