by John Cramer
Plum Creek Timber Co. has gotten both a black eye and a pat on the back in recent weeks, both having to do with the specter of big chunks of its forestland being chopped up for subdivisions and trophy homes in western Montana.
Now, the logging and real estate giant is stepping up its effort to portray itself as a good corporate neighbor, a nationwide strategy that started last year but that has intensified since April.
That’s when the public learned about Plum Creek’s private – and controversial – talks with the U.S. Forest Service about road easements for access needed for backcountry subdivision development. Three weeks ago, the publicity pendulum swung the other way when Plum Creek was lauded for its role in the largest conservation land proposal in the history, a $510 million deal involving 320,000 acres that will profit the company while preserving a wide swath of timberland.
In an effort to make their company’s intentions “transparent,” Rick Holley, president and chief executive officer of the Seattle-based Plum Creek, and three other top company officials are meeting with local government officials and media outlets across western Montana.
Kathy Budinick, the company’s director of communications, said Plum Creek’s intensified public relations effort started last year and was not prompted by the criticism the company has received about its closed-door talks about road easements with the Forest Service.
“We felt it’s really important to clarify some of the information that’s out there,” she said.
In a meeting with the Missoulian’s editorial board Wednesday, Holley said the company remained committed to a combination of timber harvesting, real estate development and conservation in Montana, a strategy he said benefits the company, the environment, sportsmen and local communities.
The Plum Creek officials said recent media coverage and public speculation have misleadingly suggested the company plans to sell much of its land holdings for development in western Montana, “leading to wall-to-wall subdivisions” in the next few years.
In fact, Holley said, the company has sold just a small amount of its acreage for development, a figure he said likely won’t change in the next several years because of the national housing, credit and lumber market downturn.
Nonetheless, Plum Creek officials said, they are committed to “clarifying” the public image of their company, which became a real estate investment trust in 1999. Forest real estate sales now account for 50 percent of Plum Creek’s revenues.
“There are a lot of people who don’t like cutting trees, but there’s only one thing worse (in their minds) – development,” Holley said.
Some conservation groups dismissed Plum Creek’s public relations effort.
“It’s a propaganda strategy,” said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, a nonprofit group based in Helena. “The reason they go on these dog-and-pony shows is they have something to hide. They have a terrible track record. They’re trying to hoodwink the public into thinking they’re a responsible landowner.”
Garrity said Plum Creek deserved credit for selling some of its lands to conservation buyers, but he said much of the acreage announced in the 320,000-acre proposal has been heavily logged and isn’t greatly threatened by development.
He said he recently flew over Plum Creek lands near Seeley Lake, “and it was mile after mile of clear-cuts,” he said. “It looks like a moonscape. They still have a lot of land that hasn’t been heavily logged and that’s the land that’s at risk for development. The taxpayers should be getting a much better deal.”
Plum Creek owns 8 million acres nationwide, including 1.2 million acres in Montana, making it the largest private landowner in the United States.
The company has identified 2 million of those acres nationwide for possible sale but won’t discuss their exact location. Another million acres could be added to the “for-sale” list, according to Plum Creek’s 2007 annual report.
During the past five years, Plum Creek sold about 210,000 acres in Montana, 85 percent of which has been conserved or remained as working forests, Holley said.
He said the company has subdivided only 3,000 acres of its Montana property for development during that period. He said the company expects its land sales over the next five years will be far less than the amount it sold over the past five years, he said.
Budinick said the company’s retooled public relations effort began last summer when it met with public relations and marketing specialists in Missoula and with economists and demographers.
“We need to improve our engagement and outreach with a lot of different constituents,” Budinick said.
She said Plum Creek’s road-easement talks with Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey have been mislabeled as “closed door.”
“We’ve been trying to clarify the fact that it’s really just a matter between Plum Creek and the Forest Service,” she said. “Our hope is that as people understand more, whether it’s the media or county commissioners, they’ll be more supportive.”
Plum Creek officials have met with commissioners and staffers from four counties in recent weeks. They also met with six media outlets this week. More meetings are planned this summer.
“Our plan is to be joined at the hip with county planners,” said Hank Ricklefs, Plum Creek’s vice president for northern resources and manufacturing.
The company’s frontman for its “changing business model” as it shifts from timber toward development is Jim Lehner, Plum Creek’s first national director of community affairs.
In western Montana, he meets regularly with local civic groups, chambers of commerce and other organizations. He moved last year from Maine, where he spearheaded the company’s controversial proposal to build the largest development in the state’s history.
The company also meets regularly with legislators at the federal and state level – last year, state lawmakers sought unsuccessfully to change tax laws considered advantageous to Plum Creek.
Holley said the company has laid off workers at its Columbia Falls and Kalispell plants since last year because of the nationwide economic slowdown and may have to do so again.
Real estate sales in western Montana also have slowed because of the nationwide economic struggles, wildfires that discourage potential land buyers and other factors, he said.
“What we’re finding in Montana is the market has come to a screeching halt,” Holley said. “The whole land market has slowed tremendously in the last year, and we don’t see that improving in the next few years.”
Reporter John Cramer can be reached at 523-5259 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.