When Weyerhaueser announced it would sell its 630,000 acres of land in Northwest Montana for $145 million to Macon, Georgia-based land company Southern Pines Plantation, the community reacted with surprise and dismay.
The sale comes out to about $230 an acre, which seems, at least on the surface, abnormally low, considering the going price of real estate in the region.
But an industry source with decades of experience said there’s a problem with the land: Most of it has been denuded and it will be decades before there’s merchantable timber again.
“They brutally cut these lands,” the source said.
There are some parcels with merchantable timber — notably off Pleasant Valley Road near the Lost Trail Wildlife Refuge. But other lands simply don’t have much in merchantable trees, the source said.
If a tree was big enough to make a 16-foot log, “It’s gone,” the source said.
“It tears my heart out to see what was done on those lands,” the source added.
He relayed the tale of one contractor who was working for the company that needed a new feller buncher — a machine that cuts down trees. When considering what to buy to harvest timber off Weyerhaeuser lands, the contractor bought the machine that would cut the fastest.
But denuded or not, Weyerhaeuser’s sale price to Southern Pines is still less than what even the state has the land assessed for. For clarification, forest lands are not assessed on the land value in the same way a house is assessed.
They’re assessed through a formula devised by expert foresters from the University of Montana based on their production capability, not land sales, noted Department of Revenue spokesman Sanjay Talwani.
Through an examination of its own records, the Department was able to determine that 541,988 acres of Weyerhaeuser timberlands were assessed for $257 million, or $474 an acre.
“The data is based on department records and may not include all Weyerhaeuser properties due to variations in ownership name,” Talwani said in an email to the Hungry Horse News.
That explains the discrepancy in the sale acreage total and the assessed totals, he noted.
Another aspect that could lower the value of the property is that about 111,000 acres of the lands are in the Thompson-Fisher River Conservation easement. The easement guarantees public access, but it also severely restricts subdivision of the property.
But even with a lack of merchantable timber and the easement restrictions, the deal is well ... a deal.
The Nature Conservancy recently announced it had sold 16,400 acres of its lands in the Blackfoot drainage to the U.S. Forest Service for $11.9 million, or about $725 an acre, using monies from the Land, Water and Conservation Fund, a federal land conservation program.
Those lands were former Plum Creek lands bought by the Conservancy a few years ago. Most of the land in that sale was burned over in a wildfire in 2003 or the Jocko Fire in 2007, said Chris Bryant, land protection specialist with the Conservancy.
In other words, it, too, didn’t have much in the way of merchantable timber.
There’s also significant tax advantages for forest lands. Weyerhaeuser paid $569,053 in property taxes on its forest lands in 2018. That works out to $1.04 an acre.
By contrast, the company paid $1.7 million in taxes on its industrial property, which includes its mills and equipment, according to the Department of Revenue. Almost all of that is in Flathead County.
Property values and land deals aside, there’s still significant concern about longterm public access to the land.
The Lincoln County Board of Commissioners is working with the Montana Forest Collaborative Network in petitioning Gov. Steve Bullock for help retaining access to the land.
Chairman Mark Peck said the effort is aimed at finding a “Montana solution” for the sale during its Jan. 8 meeting.
Officials worry that if the land becomes restricted, it would end the long hoped for regrowth of the timber industry in the region and dampen efforts to bolster economic activity through outdoor recreation and tourism.
Peck and others worry the Georgia firm will turn around and sell the property to owners who will place restrictions on the land. He said that the new effort was not aimed at blocking the sale, but rather finding a compromise.
“Everything they’re doing is legal,” Peck said. “But just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s right.”
Peck said he has not been in contact with either Southern Pine Plantations or its legal representatives in Montana. He did see the statement issued by Jamie Bowditch of the Missoula-based Boone Karlberg law firm on the sale.
Southern Pines has said it plans on managing the property to allow public access, but there’s plenty of doubt about that.
“I don’t know for sure, but it looks like they tried to do some damage control by hiring a Montana attorney,” he said. “Everybody is trying to figure out who would invest $145 million just so everybody could hunt and fish and camp on [the land], so don’t tell me there’s going to be no changes on it.”
This story contains additional reporting by Derrick Perkins of the Western News.