Until the recent past, commercial timber companies managed their lands as a source of material for their local mills. Today those companies have shifted their focus to higher financial returns for their investors. Selling off some of their vast acreages for subdivision and recreational development has been one of the strategies to gain those returns. Conversion of commercial forest lands to development threatens the important contributions these forests make to the ecological integrity and the already-struggling local economies of the region. Development could fragment core habitat of the grizzly, pinch off corridors for elk, reduce water quality for native bull trout, affect public access for recreating families, and take timber out of production possibilities.
This trend for timber companies to sell some of their property is also an enormous opportunity for conservation. These keystone private lands present an opportunity to conserve large tracts of forest at an unprecedented scale. Partnerships with timber companies also allow land trusts and corporations to demonstrate that the twin objectives of maintaining a healthy economy and maintaining functioning ecological systems can both be achieved by conserving working landscapes.
The timber industry is in transition
A recent U.S. Forest Service study predicts that 44 million acres of private timberland—an area twice the size of the state of Maine—will be broken up and sold over the next three decades. In 2008, The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land (TPL) signed an unprecedented agreement with Plum Creek Timber Company to acquire 310,000 acres of forested lands in western Montana, a project known as The Montana Legacy Project.