By Kim Briggeman - The Missoulian
Its mills in Libby and Bonner long shuttered, Stimson is steadily erasing most of the rest of its footprint in western Montana.
Sealed bids are due July 20 for more than 8,000 acres of recreation tracts in eastern Sanders and western Granite counties that went on the auction block last week. They’re just a fraction of the 68,000 acres – more than 105 square miles – of “non-strategic” holdings that Stimson intends to sell in western Montana.
In the third year of a five-year divestiture, the company has already found private buyers for some 22,000 acres west and south of Drummond. Stimson plans to retain more than 40,000 acres in northwest Montana because of the proximity to its mills in Priest River and St. Maries, Idaho, said Ray Jones, vice president of resources in Portland, Ore.
“We intend to market all of the lands that are tributary to Missoula in the state of Montana and to retain a portion of our ownership up in the Troy-Libby area,” Jones said. “We’re not totally getting out of Montana with land ownership, but we are repositioning what we do own.”
Stimson, like most lumber companies, has little capital to invest in land these days.
“We have to use these dollars wisely, and so the lands we sell in the Missoula area, we’ll take those proceeds and reinvest in lands back in Idaho where we do have operations, and have a good probability of operating for the long haul,” Jones said.
The sales come as little surprise.
“We are definitely seeing a large-scale divestiture of industrial timberland in the West, so this is part of that larger picture of timber companies looking to consolidate their holdings,” said Deb Love, Northern Rockies director for the Trust for Public Lands.
Love and the Trust for Public Land were key players, along with The Nature Conservancy and the federal government, in making the complex Montana Legacy Project happen.
More than 310,000 acres of Plum Creek lands in western Montana were transferred to public ownership in three phases in 2008, 2009 and 2010. The $490 million deal was primarily financed via a funding mechanism created in the 2008 Farm Bill under the leadership of U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.
“We got phone calls from virtually every large industrial timberland after the Legacy program was announced and they were all open to doing something at that scale,” Love said.
Indeed, The Trust for Public Land is seeking funding for conservation easements on 28,000 acres of Stimson land near Troy. It’s some of the most productive timberland in the state, as well as “incredible, high-quality wildlife habitat,” said Love.
When it comes to acquiring extensive timberlands, even at current cut-rate prices, the public trough is all but dry.
“We approached the Forest Service, the state of Montana, BLM, Fish and Parks – all of those folks were notified before we launched any kind of sales program,” Jones said. “We let them know in our perfect little world that we would dispose of non-strategic lands.
“I was hoping that there would be a very large land play with the federal agencies in particular, and also the state of Montana because of the Plum Creek Legacy Project, which is a huge one for the state of Montana. But they’re basically out of money.”
Stimson launched its land sales almost simultaneously with the Legacy Project, Pat Corts pointed out.
“Everybody’s plate was pretty full in terms of land acquisition at that time,” said Corts, the acting program manager for lands on the Lolo National Forest.
When first apprised of the available lands a couple of years ago, district rangers on the Lolo were asked to identify some the U.S. Forest Service might be interested in and to try to find funding sources for them.
It was a Spartan picture, and it hasn’t gotten any better since.
That’s a shame, Love said, because it’s a buyer’s market right now. Not long ago timber companies were coveting top-dollar prices to develop their lands as real estate holdings. Now they’re motivated to simply sell.
“It’s very disconcerting, since here we have this great opportunity to acquire some of these lands where we didn’t have the chance before, and yet right at that same time we’re seeing Congress and others tighten their belts,” Love said.
Hunters in Granite County, where Stimson purchased thousands of acres of Plum Creek timberland in recent decades, are already seeing the effects of new private ownership on those lands.
In the past year, locked gates have popped up on roads into the former Stimson lands that some have hunted for years.
“It’s not only the acres they own but acres they control access behind,” said Lee Skaw of Hall, who as a rancher and a hunter has seen both sides of hunter-access frays.
“It’s a concern,” agreed Tim Aldrich of the Montana Wildlife Federation, who found a locked gate blocking one of his favorite Granite County hunting spots north of Interstate 90 last year.
“There were so many assumptions for so long that the railroad lands, which then went into timber company ownerships, were looked at almost like public lands for those who hunted and hiked around here,” Aldrich said.
Then Plum Creek, the largest private landowner in the state, formed a real estate investment trust and went into the real estate business.
“It really awakened us all to the potential of having a lot of those lands converted into private lands that were not accessible, for management of timber or any other resource, as well as recreation hunting and hiking and so forth,” said Aldrich.
Thus the Montana Legacy Project, what Aldrich called “a monumental thing.”
But it addressed only Plum Creek lands.
“I kept wondering,” Aldrich mused, “at what point would Stimson decide that they’re going to act like, if not become, an REIT (real estate investment trust) in this area to dispose of some of those lands.”