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The Associated Press

Deal Could Open National Forests to Developers


A controversial deal between the federal
government and the nation's largest private landowner could increase
residential development of forests around the country, according to
congressional investigators.

The proposed agreement between the Forest Service and Plum Creek
Timber Co. would allow the company to use roads on national forests in
Montana to develop its adjacent private property for subdivisions. Such
easements often allow the company to use public roads only for logging
or forest management.

The Government Accountability Office, in a letter sent Friday to the
two Democratic senators who requested an investigation, said the deal
could set a precedent and allow other private landowners to use forest
roads to build subdivisions. The private negotiations deprived the
public of any chance to weigh in, investigators said.

"This report sounds all sorts of alarms about the way the Forest
Service is doing business," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who asked
for the probe along with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.

Negotiations began after a Forest Service ranger in Seeley Lake,
Mont., in 2006 told a potential buyer of Plum Creek land that the roads
leading up to the property were not for residential use.

Forest Service officials overruled the ranger after talking with
Plum Creek, the report says. The agency determined that the company
could use certain Forest Service roads for any purpose, and the
proposed agreement includes specific language that allows the company
to use Forest Service roads to access residential subdivisions that may
be built on property in the future.

Montana county officials say the proposal would make it easier for
Plum Creek to sell timberland for houses or other development.

The GAO agreed, saying "many of Plum Creek's lands in western
Montana would have a substantially higher value if the amendment is
carried out."

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest
Service, and a spokeswoman for Plum Creek both said they are now
engaging county officials in the process. Rey also denied that the
proposal would set a precedent nationwide.

Kathy Budinick, spokeswoman for Plum Creek, said the company will
not implement the amendment in any county that doesn't wish to have it.


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