The Clock Hasn't Run Out on Backroom Bush Deals

With so much focus on who will be the next president and second-in-command, it’s easy to forget a critical reality: the Bush administration is not over yet. Its policies and appointees still prevail at federal agencies, and is penchant for cutting backroom deals to benefit industry allies has not waned. Just look at Montana.

Back in July, I had the good fortune of traveling to Western Montana’s Blackfoot River, the trout-filled waters made famous in Norman McLean’s A River Runs Through It. I got to hike up mountainsides covered with ponderosa pine, and then relax in the wide open, grassy meadows that stretch across the valley floor.

Still, I couldn’t help noticing the clear cuts that pocked many of the hillsides. The Blackfoot has a long history of being pounded by logging and mining interests, from the Copper Kings in the 19th century to Plum Creek Timber today.

That’s why I was so pleased in July to hear that Plum Creek plans to sell 500 square miles of forest land in Western Montana to the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land. It is one the largest deals setting forest aside for conservation in the country’s history. Federal Investigators Think Public Business Done in Private

But this admirable public agreement looks more and more like a distraction from private dealings the company has been conducting with the Forest Service. Indeed, federal investigators are currently looking into the closed-room deals cut between the Bush administration and Plum Creek.

Plum Creek is the country’s biggest private landowner. As demand for residential development grows in the West, Plum Creek has been selling off forest property at almost $30,000 an acre—land that would only bring in $500 an acre for logging. In Montana alone, the company has sold about 30,000 acres for home sites or private recreational use.

But some of this prime real estate is buried back in the woods. So Plum Creek executives met privately with members of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey’s staff to renegotiate the company’s rights to use Forest Service roads.

Are Taxpayers Subsidizing Private Driveways?

Experts say that before these changes were made, Plum Creek was only allowed to use publicly funded Forest Service roads to haul lumber—not build driveways. The new easements, however, result in a taxpayer-subsidized boon for developers.

But the main issue here is that the deals were cut behind the scenes. The law is clear: if Mark Rey is granting Plum Creek new rights on public lands, then there should be a formal public review to decide how it impacts public lands and endangered species.

That didn’t happen.

Expect More Backroom Deals as the Clock Runs Down

Undersecretary Rey has said he is eager to finalize the Plum Creek deal before he leaves office. As various other Bush appointees prepare for life in the private sector, can we expect more private negotiations to occur between public officials and industry representatives?

Given the administration record, from the top-secret Cheney Energy Task Force to Plum Creek’s sweetheart deal, the answer is yes. I encourage you to not get too distracted by the next administration, and make sure the public interests are not more undermined by this one.