Proposed Easement Amendment Agreement between the Department of Agriculture and Plum Creek Timber Co.
B-317292: Oct 10, 2008
- Full Report:
Congress asked GAO to examine a proposed transaction between the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Plum Creek Timber Co. (Plum Creek), under which the parties would enter into an agreement amending a large but undetermined number of easements Plum Creek holds on certain lands managed by USDA's Forest Service. In their request Congress asked GAO to examine a number of issues associated with this proposed transaction. This letter addresses some of these issues. The draft agreement's stated purpose is to clarify that Plum Creek may use these easements to access its own lands for any purposes, including specifically to provide access to residential subdivisions that may come to be located on these lands. These easements--conveyed to Plum Creek or its predecessors under the National Forest Roads and Trails Act of 1964 (FRTA), 16 U.S.C. 532-538--are located in western Montana, where Plum Creek owns a substantial amount of land. While USDA and Plum Creek officials state that the agreement simply clarifies rights that Plum Creek already has, county officials and others in Montana have raised concerns that the agreement grants Plum Creek new access rights, and therefore, should be developed using a public process, particularly since in their view the agreement could lead to increased development in sensitive forest areas. There is general agreement that many of Plum Creek's lands in western Montana would have a substantially higher value if the amendment is carried out, because the clear provision for residential access would enhance these lands' value for residential development purposes.
FRTA and the cost share road systems were primarily designed to address a specific problem: how to manage federal and nonfederal lands in the checkerboard for largely similar purposes in the most efficient manner, where there are relatively few nonfederal landowners, and where road usage is often intermittent and easily regulated for environmental and other land management purposes when necessary. In many places in the West this situation no longer exists. Instead, federal and adjacent nonfederal lands are often managed for very different purposes--indeed many private lands now (or will soon) host subdivisions, a land use not authorized on public lands and one requiring year-round access on roads that may not have been originally planned and constructed for that purpose. Moreover, in many places the number of different private landowners has multiplied, creating the potential for even more complex access and administrative problems than those FRTA and the cost-share mechanism were developed to address. The draft easement amendment would establish USDA's position that all FRTA easements across the west meeting the template language provide for access as stated in the amendment. USDA has thus far foregone the opportunity to analyze alternatives for addressing this highly complicated matter in a systematic public way, whether by carrying out an analysis under NEPA or doing so in some other fashion. USDA's approach has also deprived it of the opportunity to obtain the public's views on a matter of intense public interest in a manner that might meaningfully inform the agency's decision, as well as the opportunity to allay public confusion over the agency's current FRTA easement management policies.