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.
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