MISSOULA, Mont. — 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.
The deal was struck behind closed doors between Mark Rey, the former timber lobbyist who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, and Plum Creek Timber Co., a former logging company turned real estate investment trust.
Plum Creek owns more than 8-million acres nationwide, including 1.2-million acres in the mountains of western Montana, where local officials were stunned and outraged at the deal.
"We have 40 years of Forest Service history that has been reversed in the last three months," said Pat O'Herren, an official in Missoula County, which is threatening to sue the Forest Service for forgoing environmental assessments and other procedures that would have given the public a voice in the matter.
The deal, which Rey said he expects to formalize next month, threatens to dramatically accelerate trends already transforming the region.
Environmentalists, to their surprise, found timber and mining were easier on the countryside.
"A clear-cut will grow back, but a subdivision of trophy homes, that's going to be that way forever. It's kind of the ugly face of the new economy," said Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit that studies land management in the West.
Rey said he, too, laments the ascension of "McMansions" over working forest, but insisted the law obliged him to accommodate Plum Creek's request for clarification of its rights to cross public land. Rey emphasized that during the private negotiations, Forest Service lawyers leveraged promises from Plum Creek to moderate the impact, including mandating "fire-wise" measures to reduce the danger from summer wildfires.