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Rocky Mountain Low

WaPo has again missed a golden opportunity to explore the human the settlement pattern story. Read it and weep: “Closed-Door Deal Could Open Land in Montana: Forest Service Angers Locals With Move That May Speed Building”. The story is by Karl Vick on the front page of the 5 July The Washington Post. For those who think this note is only about Montana read on and See End Note One.

There is a silver bullet that would forestall this “speed building” in a heartbeat. However, we have no confidence that bullet will be fired in Montana or in the Piedmont of Virginia. More on that in a moment.

The bottom line of the WaPo story is that a former timber lobbyist “who oversees the U.S. Forest Service” has negotiated a new set of guidelines for “development” of some or all of Plum Creek Timber Co.’s 1.2 million acres of land in western Montana.

Plum Creek is a corporate descendent of Northern Pacific Railroad, the recipient of “alternate sections” to subsidize building its railroad across Montana in the 19th century. Plum Creek is an Enterprise progeny of the interlocked relationships among forest product Enterprises Boise Cascade, Potlatch and Weyerhaeuser. Plum Creek was formerly a logging, sawmill, lumber and paper company. It is now a land speculator / real estate investment trust. See End Note Two.

First: The WaPo reporter had limited space to tell a complex story and some relationships and events are not clear. In addition, it is well established that WaPo editors do not understand human settlement pattern issues. Because of these two realities, anyone who reads the WaPo story about the Plum Creek / Forest Service deal may not have the whole picture. Even with this caveat, the story portrays yet again the pervasive governance dysfunction in the US of A. Any more of you now ready to support Fundamental Transformation of governance structure?

Second: The scattered “second, third or fourth” homes that may result from the Plum Creek development are urban land uses. The Plum Creek / U.S. Forest Service activity needs to be treated as an urban settlement pattern issue. Forestry is a nonurban activity, second homes that generate six to ten Autonomobile trips a day when occupied and attract vandals when not occupied are urban land uses.

Based on the facts presented, two things about the story also do not ring true:

First, Plum Creek’s management – this is an Enterprise with over a century of forest harvesting experience – cannot be so badly out of touch with the scale of its holdings (aka, Geographically Illiterate) as to think second, third and fourth home sales would dispose of a significant part of its 1.2 million acres of land in western Montana. At the rate of sale to developers claimed by Plum Creek over the last five years it would take 2,000 years to clear their books of these timber lands. (See End Note Three.)

Further Plum Creek leaders must know what happened to their corporate relative Boise Cascade when that Enterprise decided to convert its forest expertise into land speculation profit.

Boise Cascade lost millions in the 1973-1975 Oil / REIT / Land Speculation recession. This loss was due to the fact that the company vastly overestimated consumption for future urban uses in the Radius Band = 10 to Radius = 30 miles around expanding urban centers. This is not the case in western Montana. “Growth” is due to “come-heres” who are importing “unearned” income.

The second thing that does not compute is that the “opposition” cannot really think that development will “happen” in the foreseeable future to more than a tiny fraction of the 1.2 million acres Plum Creek owns, even if the past were prologue.

The past is not prologue – think punctuated equilibrium. The First World has run out of cheap oil

It is not the price of gasoline that is a problem for potential buyers of Plum Creek McLodges – even those with Euros to spend – it is the end of air travel as it has existed since the end of World War II. (See our 21 April 2008 column “The End of Flight as We Know It.”) The home page for Eagle Creek at Lakeside, MT, that is being scraped out of former Plum Creek land by “Land Rush Reality” (I am not making this up) touts the close proximity to Glacier International Airport (AKA, Flathead County Airport.)

And that is just the start. Humans are headed for a Fundamental Transformation in the forces that impact settlement patterns. (See our 7 July 2008 column on Plutocracy titled “The Wealth Gap.”)

OK, there are already some three-story log mushrooms popping up, there are some newly cleared building sites near existing roads in the Swan Valley and elsewhere. As the son of dyed-in-the-wool hunter and fisherman – the sole source of protein and much of the fruit in our Household when I was growing up was hunted and gathered from public land – and a card carrying environmentalist, I hate to see those things happen as much as anyone. (See the two columns on Montana cited in End Note Two.)

But the potential development would be nothing like the past scourge of resource extraction and the continuing scourge of resource “exploration” that is being carried out to “keep the economy growing.” This scourge can be seen across western US of A and is faithfully reported in High Country News and other sources. (See again the “The Wealth Gap” column noted above and the resources cited there-in.)

I recall that while elk hunting in the North Fork of the Flathead River – yes, on the “Forest Service” (west) side of the river – we came across log cabins of homesteaders that were abandoned during and after World War I. Many of the possessions – stoves, utensils, toys – were still in place 30 years after the owners left them behind.

If they are built, some of the Plum Creek McLodges will come to this same end, just like mining and ghost towns, only too scattered to become tourist attractions. Real estate markets already document the decline in value of ocean front, water front, resort and retirement developments.

Both of these issues are important but there is a much bigger concern:

When will humans learn that the cumulative impact of buying a private piece of Countryside (or in this case Mountainside) destroys the values and the value the buyer is seeking?

Paul Gurinas, the Chicago hedge fund partner cited in the story understands this. But too late. Gurinas’ solution is to buy more land. However, few can afford to do that today and even fewer will be able to do it in the future. In addition, the cumulative result of that self-serving strategy is to keep everyone else away from the “best places” and that is not sustainable over the long haul in a democracy with a market economy.

In fact most of the best nonurban places are already public. In West Glacier I lived in a small dwelling on a very small lot but out our front door (and across the Middle Fork of the Flathead River) was a million acres of Glacier National Park. Out my back door (our property backed to US Forest Service Land) I could walk – crossing few trails and almost no roads – for 135 miles through what was “The Bob” and what later became The Great Bear and other wilderness portions of the Northern Rocky Mountain Urban Support Region.


There is a need to save more great places – the Yaak Valley where my father and I fished comes to mind- but the way to do that is to intelligently and efficiently allocate land for the 95 percent of the population that derives their livelihood from urban activities – and do it in patterns and densities that are most favored in the market place. (See our discussion of the silver bullet below and End Note Four.)


By recommending more extensive public and shared ownership of nonurban land we are not for a minute suggesting that the current management of public land is carried out in an acceptable manner. We also believe that there is an important role for private ownership of open land, but private land is not a “solution,” especially not in small, scattered lots.


What we are saying is that scattered pseudo-nonurban land uses that are really the dwellings of urban citizens are collectively unsustainable. We address this issue in THE USE AND MANAGEMENT OF LAND, a chapter in FOUNDATIONS, one of the three books that comprise TRILO-G forthcoming.


Understanding that all the urban land uses in the US of A at minimum sustainable densities will occupy less than 5 percent of the land area of the lower 48 is a place to start. That means 95 percent of the land can be devoted to nonurban uses including the residences of those Households that depend on nonurban activities for the majority of their income.


The question is how to decide what is urban and what is nonurban and how to manage that land. It turns out a well informed market and functional democratic structure will provide a basis for these decisions. These strategies are articulated in our work including TRILO-G.


Let’s take a closer look at one vignette from Karl Vick’s story: Buying 200 acres and putting a remote camera trained on a bear’s hibernation den is an urban recreation use of land.


Let us follow that trail for a moment. There are now about 135 Web Cams in Montana and half a dozen sites that provide listings and links to these Web Cams. Some Web Cams can be controlled from my keyboard in Virginia. A viewer can zero in on what is happening in a specific place in which they are interested. For far less than the price of a lot, you can sponsor a Web Cam that keeps you in touch with any great place. In 2003 we followed the Robert fire that threatened our home town via the Lake McDonald Web Cam.

I have found that what is great about Montana is what I see from the trail and from the mountain top, not what I see from the road or from a picture window.

Living a contemporary life, even in a supportive setting, is very time consuming just to maintain health and sanity. It makes no sense to move to a setting where life is even more difficult. Making the time, distance, flexibility and monetary sacrifices necessary to achieve the quality of life on a scattered urban lot is making life far more difficult, and in the future far more expensive.


It may be better to visit from time to time and supply income for those who choose to live in Montana and provide services to appreciative guests. Yes, we know “visiting” will cost more in the future but the alternative of buying a McLodge will cost much more.

Ask yourself: “Why scatter urban dwellings which cumulatively destroy what you value of the nonurban world?”

Now back to the WaPo story and Plum Creek. Our guess is that the “development” scare is part of an overarching Plum Creek sale / disposal strategy. The goal is to sell the land, but not for development. Plum Creek wants to sell to the Nature Conservancy and other blunderers.


If very much of Plum Creek’s land was worth the $11,000 an acre as quoted in the story, the developer would sell it for that. Instead it is selling it for $780 an acre (or $1,600 an acre) – the story is not clear on how many acres were recently purchased for how much in the transactions mentioned in the WaPo story. The $250 million federal bond guarantee money that U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, placed in the 2008 “farm bill” – the U.S. Forest Service is part of USDA – is also involved in what was obviously a carefully orchestrated mega transaction. (See End Note Five.)


There is a map with the WaPo article that shows the location of Plum Creek holdings and “320,000 acres purchased last month.” At first glance the purchase looks like an intelligent selection but was the price right, given Plum Creek’s current alternative prospects?


In the new world order of expensive energy, what is the value of this land? What would it be if there were a broad citizen understanding of the causes and impacts of dysfunctional human settlement patterns? What if Agency governance practitioners understood the long-term impact of their actions? What if Rick Bass and Bill McKibben looked through the other end of the telescope?


Flying into Missoula or driving in from the east / west (I-90 / US Route 12) or the south / north (US Route 93) what one sees are trailers, hope houses, starter homes, retirement A frames, mini mansions, and some McMansions scattered over the foothills in all directions. The views from US Route 93 North – the route we took to and from college – are especially depressing.


What municipal, state and federal Agencies have already scattered across the landscape is not a pretty sight. When the Super rich who survive the current unpleasantness have to choose between a place in western Montana versus one in the Alps, Patagonia or the Urals they are likely to choose one of the other places.


We encountered the Eagle Crest subdivision on the west side of Flathead Lake, which is cited in the story by chance, when we were in Montana for our 50th high school reunion. We photographed it for our Dysfunctional Settlement Pattern collection, and I cringe every time I see the ads in Alumni publications for Mansion Heights, Canyon River and McMansions down the Bitterroot Valley where my aunt and uncle farmed.


The reason we all should cringe is not just aesthetic, it is economic and, of course, environmental. Where are the highest values per square foot / per acre in the Greater Missoula Subregion? Along those wonderful, tree-lined, urbane streets near the University.


We would guess, based on our work in other Regions that the entire population of the Subregion would comfortably fit in the footprint of the City of Missoula at appropriate and sustainable patterns and densities. The values would be higher and more stable, and the hillsides could be turned back to the deer, antelope and pine martins.

You say you want to live in a different settlement pattern? Pay the total cost of your decision and be our guest.

So what is that silver bullet we noted at the outset and implied in the last sentence?


Charge the full cost of all location-variable services of supporting scattered urban dwellings – including the cost of protecting them in the event of fire.


The WaPo story ends with the list of a few of the costs that will be incurred by Missoula County in the provision of “services” for those residing on former Plum Creek land. Why should these costs and any of the other direct and indirect costs of scattered urban development be paid by anyone except those who create the scatteration and those who directly benefit from it?


Our guess is that a suggested fair allocation of location-variable costs will be successfully opposed by those who own parcels of land that are smaller than those owned by Plum Creek. This land is also being speculatively held for future urban land uses that will never happen but that will not keep the owners from exercising their political swat.


Have a good summer. We will be watching on the Web Cams and preparing to fight these same battles here in the piedmont of Virginia.


— July 21, 2008



End Notes


(1). This post is written as an open letter to friends in Montana. At first blush, it may appear to step outside the normal Bacon’s Rebellion turf – the Commonwealth of Virginia – but does not. The problem discussed here is also facing forest conservation interests in Virginia. It is projected that sale of Virginia timber lands will be greatly accelerated in the near future. We have heard the number “5,000,000 acres” (about 20 percent of the total Commonwealth land area) from very reliable sources as being “in play” due to the sale of unproductive timber lands. Most of the land will be marketed for scattered urban uses. This is not a new story for the Commonwealth – recall Lake of the Woods in Orange County, Lake Monticello in Fluvanna County and perhaps two score other timber land-to-urban Enclave projects scattered across the Commonwealth.
(2). Plum Creek owned a large sawmill in Columbia Falls, MT, where EMR went to high school. We have written two columns on human settlement patterns in Montana: “Fire and Flood,” 3 November 2003, and “Big (Gray, Brown) Sky Country,” 23 October 2006, at Bacon’s Rebellion These columns were written from the perspective of one who grew up and went to undergraduate school in the Big Sky Country – A.B.’s daughter was a classmate.
(3). We know a bit about disposing of underperforming timber lands, having been hired to advise Weyerhaeuser on the topic in the ’70s.
(4). Those who have read our work know that these settlement patterns are not a scatteration of one, two, five, ten, 50 or 100 acre urban lots. It is not also “Manhattan” either. See The Shape of the Future.
(5). Such transactions are profiled in Investing in Nature: Case Studies of Land Conservation in Collaboration with Business” by William J. Ginn.

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