MISSOULA — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock wrote the CEO of Weyerhaeuser on Thursday, asking for assurance that sawmill operations and public access to timberlands will not be affected by the company's merger with Plum Creek.
For his part, Bullock pledged to work with CEO Doyle Simons to "help the wood products industry grow," touting his administration's efforts to "promote active forest management in Montana."
The governor said he is "very concerned" that Weyerhaeuser "may not fully appreciate Montana's culture" of open and free access to thousands of acres of commercial timberlands.
In Oregon and Washington, Weyerhaeuser charges stiff fees for access to its land, requiring permits and leases. The permits are often limited in number and can cost upward of $275, while leases go to the highest bidder.
Last year, the company sold 3,267 land-access permits to hunters, hikers, mushroom pickers and other recreationists.
That policy wouldn't sit well with Montanans, the governor warned Thursday.
"Access to Montana's public wildlife is a fundamental part of Montana's cherished hunting and fishing heritage and traditions," Bullock told Simons. "More than ever, it is also a vital wildlife management tool for the state."
Plum Creek acquired its western Montana lands from Champion International in 1993, and "wisely," in the governor's words, continued Champion's open access policy. "Plum Creek has been an excellent neighbor and active partner, allowing free access to its lands under management by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks."
Should Weyerhaeuser choose to abandon that long tradition of free and open access, and instead implement a fee system, "that approach will not be well-received in Montana," Bullock said.
"I ask that you move quickly to alleviate public concerns over this merger and immediately announce the company's intention to continue the free and open access policies adopted by your predecessors," he said. "Not only will it be a good business decision, it will begin a productive, long-term relationship with Montana's citizens."
Earlier this month, Simons announced that Weyerhaeuser Co. is buying Plum Creek Timber Co. for $8.44 billion.
The new company will keep the Weyerhaeuser name and control more than 13 million acres of timberland, making it one of the world's biggest timberland and forest products companies.
Plum Creek is the largest private landowner in Montana, with 770,000 acres in the western part of the state. It also operates sawmill and plywood plant combinations in Columbia Falls and Kalispell, and a medium-density fiberboard plant in Evergreen.
The merger came as a surprise, and immediately brought concerns for Plum Creek's 750 workers in western Montana and for the thousands who take advantage of the company's open access policy to hunt and hike across its acreage.
Both Plum Creek and Weyerhaeuser have been silent on what the future holds, for workers or public access. But in the statement announcing their merger, the companies said that going forward, there will be “total annual cost synergies of $100 million.”
And subsequent questions brought answers that it was "too early to tell" whether there would be layoffs at Plum Creek mills, or whether land access would change.
In Thursday's letter, Bullock also emphasized the importance of Plum Creek's "good-paying, stable jobs."
He told Simons that state timberlands "have consistently provided volume for our mills, while meeting environmental safeguards." And he touted his Forests and Focus Initiative, and its work to increase timber cutting on private and federal lands.
That effort includes $1 million in state funds invested in 14 U.S. Forest Service projects that produced almost 50 million board feet of timber, as well as restoration work and recreational opportunities.
"This level of effort reflects my commitment to Montana's wood products industry, and I've made this commitment in significant part recognizing that the jobs provided by the industry are good-paying jobs for Montana families."
As of late Thursday, Weyerhaeuser had not responded to Bullock's letter.