Whitney Williams: Access to our lands is under attack; Montana deserves better

Whitney Williams

Access to our land is central to our identity as Montanans. And in Northwest Montana, it’s under attack.

Georgia-based Southern Pine Plantations recently announced their plans to purchase 630,000 acres of timberland in Northwest Montana from the Weyerhaeuser Company — land that has been an economic driver for Northwest Montana for decades, and a personal playground for hunters, fishers and hikers. Logs from the Weyerhaeuser land have long fed our mills, employing generations of Montanans.

And — although privately owned — it has always been treated as nothing less than open to all of us.

Southern Pine Plantations told the press they have no plans “to change the long-standing practices of the prior owners related to public access.” But we need only look to our neighbors in Idaho and their company’s sale of 172,000 acres of forest land to Texas billionaires in 2016 — who immediately closed off access to the public — to see that Montanans deserve more than a promise in a press release.

I’m an avid believer in private property rights, but a change so fundamental to Northwest Montana’s identity and economy requires a firm commitment from Southern Pine Plantations that any future decisions regarding the land will be grounded in Montana-focused solutions. I join Montanans in calling on Southern Pine Plantations to take four concrete steps in order to keep our land access open, protect our jobs, and keep our forests healthy:

(1) Create a local steering committee in conjunction with community leaders, conservation organizations, and Montanans who earn their livelihoods off the Weyerhaeuser land to provide input on land use and ensure access stays open to the hunters, fishers, and families who enjoy it.

(2) Guarantee timber from the property will continue to be processed in Montana mills and the jobs the timber creates stay safe, secure, and in the hands of Montanans.

(3) Commit to working with the state and the federal government to ensure a significant portion of the Weyerhaeuser land eventually becomes a Community Forest Management Trust, ensuring Montana workers can sustainably manage the land for the long haul and preserving the right to clean air, land, and water guaranteed to Montanans in our state’s Constitution.

(4) Commit to placing access easements across portions of the Weyerhaeuser land that are adjacent to public lands. Nearly 1.5 million acres of public land in Montana lie inaccessible to the public because they are land-locked by private lands — and we deserve a commitment that this sale will not exacerbate the problem should the lands be sold in the future.

As a candidate for Governor and a sixth generation Montanan, I feel no greater obligation than to protect what makes Montana, Montana. As the proposed sale of the Weyerhaeuser land looms ahead of us, we have an opportunity to do right by Northwest Montanans — to lead with the Montana values that have driven us to keep our land open to our neighbors who have called it home for generations.

We cannot wait to take action. As Governor, I won’t.