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Montana greens to loggers: Come back!

For decades now, the green extreme has argued the industries that develop the nation’s natural resources for commercial use ought to be forced off the West’s “public” lands.

And they didn’t much care which tactic did the job. If sawmills could be shut down and whole towns thrown out of work to supposedly “protect” the spotted owl or some other creature — or even some small local populace of a species found in abundance elsewhere — that effort was “good to go.”

In Missoula, Mont., the environmental extremists appear to have pretty much won that battle. The Plum Creek Timber Company still owns 8 million acres of mostly forested land nationwide, including 1.2 million acres in the mountains of western Montana. But they don’t cut trees on a lot of that land now. Instead, the former logging company has turned into “a real estate investment trust,” The Washington Post reports.

And what do real estate investment trusts do with forested land if it’s no longer judged politically or economically rewarding to cut the trees for lumber?

Plum Creek’s lawyers approached Mark Rey, head of the U.S. Forest Service, for “clarification” of the firm’s rights to cross public land. In a series of private negotiations, Mr. Rey says the law required him to acknowledge the firm’s right of access across Forest Service land — even to pave some of the old logging roads. But Mr. Rey says Forest Service lawyers extracted promises from Plum Creek that “fire wise” measures would be taken to reduce the danger of summer wildfires as they proceed with their new plans for the land — building forest homes for rich people.

Are the environmentalists happy that they’ve finally convinced the loggers to do something else with those lands?

What do you think?

Critics including some local officials were “stunned and outraged” at a deal “struck behind closed doors,” the Post reports. Although Plum Creek has sold off only 3,000 acres in the past five years and plans to sell less than that in the next five, the local Jacobins have dubbed the planned homes “McMansions,” pointing out most new houses in the area are now second, third or even fourth homes for wealthy newcomers who have transformed the local economy — the Post breathlessly reporting 40 percent of income in Missoula County is now “unearned,” a term favored by the anti-capitalists to describe investment returns.

“Now that Plum Creek is getting out of the timber business, we’re kind of missing the loggers,” Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research outfit that studies land management in the West, told the Post. “A clear-cut will grow back, but a subdivision of trophy homes, that’s going to be that way forever,” Mr. Rasker now laments.

Those darned humans. Isn’t there any way to get rid of them?

Missoula County officials are threatening to sue the Forest Service for failing to call for environmental assessments and public hearings.

“For us, this is kind of an arterial bleed,” whines Melanie Parker, executive director of Northwest Connections, an environmental group in Swan Valley, 60 miles northeast of Missoula.

Rich people building fancy houses in the woods. Oh, the humanity!

Some environmental groups are responding ethically — ponying up market rates to buy what they see as the most desirable parcels. Since 2000, the Nature Conservancy has paid Plum Creek — presumably a willing seller — market rates to secure 280,000 acres in the area.

Others, of course, want the taxpayers to fund their whims. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., forced into the farm bill, which survived President Bush’s veto, $250 million in federal largess to back bonds to buy more Plum Creek lands that might otherwise be developed.

Will those lands now be taken off the tax rolls, saddling the owners of the county’s remaining private land with higher bills? Or will the environmentalists find themselves owing local taxes on those lands — an expense that might require them to make some return on their investment by, say … selling off some acreage for residential use?

“Environmentalists, to their surprise, found that timber and mining were easier on the countryside,” reports Karl Vick of the Post.

Imagine that.

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