The Washington Post reports that “secret negotiations” that were going on between the US Forest Service and a publicly-traded company – Plum Creek Timber Company (NYSE: PCL) – would allow the company to use taxpayer-owned land to build roads to gain access to the company’s new private land residential subdivisions.  The Government Accountability Office is investigating now, to see whether laws have been broken or the National Environmental Policy Act violated, says the Post.


The media have not been kind in recent months to the CEO (who formerly was CFO). Recently the company sold 320,000 acres of its land for $510 million – which brought on an attack by US Senator Max Baucus. In an interview with “New West Development” CEO Rick Holley assured reporter Kellyn Brown of The Flathead Beaconthat the company would be more transparent about its plans and operations – and land sales. (Here’s the interview:


The roots of these conservation-vs.-exploitation controversies go w-a-a-y-y back – to President Teddy Roosevelt’s time (#26) a century ago.  He was the first Conservationist-in-Chief, setting aside millions of acres of land for future generations.  Incredibly, Teddy Roosevelt set aside land at the rate of almost 100,000 acres a day — (today’s) national parks (5), national forests (150), game and bird preserves, monuments, and other reservations, that are in total way beyond 200 million acres.


Contrast that with the present leadership in Washington, with charges almost daily of violation of protections that officials swore to uphold as they took office.   We have “starved the [government] beast” of money, as trumpeted by conservative leader Grover Norquist, leaving vacant hundreds of inspector positions in USDA, FDA and other agencies.  The laws are in place – but the “neutron bomb style of right wing politics” leaves government laws, rules and offices / agencies in place – just all the people are gone (people, that is, who enforce the rules).  Oh, that kind of thing happened to dear Teddy – but he was a courageous, sometimes outrageous figure when crossed.


A powerful figure with great personal stature (among voters and elected officials) TR often just “simply did it,” with the swipe of his pen.  Later Congress created the national park system, but here is the key to the controversy that followed:  The reserved land had to serve multiple purposes, and while being preserved forever (say, for your family’s visit) these reserves were also available for economic / commercial exploitation – mining, timbering, oil drilling, carving roads through to get to resources, cattle grazing, etc.


Think about the US of A 100 years ago – 75 million population with wide swaths of the Far West vacant of people.  Farming, ranching, agriculture and mining of natural resources were the work-of-the-day for the majority of Americans.  Clean rivers, free of industrial pollution; abundant forests as far as the eye could see; prairies stretching for miles with waving grain – and more.


As our nation industrialized things got more and more complicated.  Of course industry pollutes – one benefit of outsourcing and offshoring is that fewer factories emit coal wastes.  Waterways return to a more natural state with fewer emissions into streams, rivers, lakes, etc.


Today in Montana the controversy rages over whether Plum Creek Timber Company should be allowed – by the US Forest Service, ultimately reporting up to both the Congress and the Bush White House – to build access roads on public land to reach subdivisions they will build.  Oh, in a sign of the times here in America the “timber company” is now also a REIT (real estate investment trust) that owns 8 million acres nationwide, including 1.2 million acres in western Montano.


Will more logger jobs be going? Not outsourced but perhaps outmoded by various factors?  Unless the lumberjacks can get into the trades building McMansions at the end of public roads (that’s the key – parkland roads are needed to lead to secluded elite homes!) they will be out of work. Oh, we should mention the grizzly bears and other animals that could be disturbed by traffic and construction.


Interesting little irony:  Teddy got his nickname from a little bear that he observed after it was dragged up to him to be shot.  The president was an avid hunter and on a trip he didn’t find a bear to shoot; his hosts tied an old bear to a tree and encouraged him to shoot.  Teddy didn’t – he ordered the injured bear to be put down.  Cliff Berryman, a cartoonist, depicted this event and the public went wild. An enterprising New Yorker, Morris Michtom, set up the Ideal Toy Company to market “Teddy Bears,” and sales shot through the roof!  (The president gave his permission to call them “Teddy.”)  Ah, the good old days.


But this is 2008 and the economy is shuffling along, oil prices are shooting through the roof, the subprime crisis has put banking and real estate down in the dumps, and industrial sales (e.g., timber, paper) have slowed.


The Plum Creek Timber Company is going through some challenging financial times; in late-July it reported earnings falling (2Q income was $31 million, down from $60mm on revenues of $376 million in the quarter, vs. $395 the same period a year earlier). Said the CEO:  “Overall timber market conditions remained challenging during 2Q.  Lower results so far this year reflect the weaker pricing environment for sawlogs, offset by attractive pulpwood markets,” said Rick Holley, CEO in a statement.   So cutting that road through reserved land could make a difference in the company’s fortunes.  Stockholders will be happier than with results from paper and wood products, yes?


The story in The Washington Post today sets things in perspective from the current Washington DC point-of-view:


“The Bush Administration is preparing to ease the way for the nation’s largest private landowner to convert hundreds of thousands of acres of mountain forestland to residential subdivisions…”  and


“The deal was struck behind closed doors…”


Hey, if you can’t take care of your big donors, what are you doing running things in Washington these days!  (According to “Campaign Money – com,” CEO Rick R. Holley donates regularly through the American Forest & Paper Association PAC -AF&PAPAC, Plum Creek Timber Company Good Government Fund, the Bush-Cheney Primary in 2004, and People for Patty Murray US Senate Campaign.  And, befitting new directions in the company’s business, $5,000 to the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts.)


Politics – it’s about money.  Development, building, REITs – it’s about money.  Timber, mining, natural resources – it’s about _____ (fill in the blank.)


What do you think of all this?  What are the accountabilities of … the company to its shareholders, to stakeholders, to society?  What are the accountabilities of …the US Forest Service?  What are the accountabilities of political parties and elected officials who accept $$$$ from individuals and companies?  No easy answers here!