Swiss philanthropist buys $35M in Plum Creek Timber land in western Montana

This is not the first land protection buy-up in the Rockies by the Swiss billionaire-

This purchase seems to be a very good thing for conservation of the Montana landscape, but I’d bet this post will stir up a lot of debate about billionaires buying land (or maybe just about billionaires and why there are so many of them all of a sudden).

Swiss philanthropist buys $35M in Plum Creek Timber land in western Montana.  By Matthew Brown. Associated Press

7 Responses to “Swiss philanthropist buys $35M in Plum Creek Timber land in western Montana”

  1. Tom Page Says:

    The headline is misleading. Wyss donated money towards a public purchase. This is quite different than Turner or Siebel. Turner doesn’t have much interest in working with the public agencies, other than to cherrypick their best employees…his lands sure are spectacular, however. Of course, part of the reason he’s been able to make such changes is because he doesn’t have to deal with all the bureaucracy that goes along with any project on public ground.

    • Ralph Maughan Says:

      Tom Page,

      Thanks! I think there needs to be a discussion of the various ways that wealthy people can and do purchase one or more of the bundle of rights we call “property rights.” To add, I mean property in the form of land and water.

      I noticed from the discussion on this article in the newspaper, that there was massive confusion on this coupled with a lot of anger and also pleasure from other folks. In fact, this discussion is what prompted me to post this.

  2. Debra K Says:

    I’d also bet that many of these Plum Creek holdings were originally given the to the railroads. Congressional grants of the public domain to the railroads were staggering in scope, and explain a lot of the checkerboard development and logging in MT and WA, among others.

    I would also like tosee a journalist do a little fact checking for a change, and see how much truth underlies the local rancher’s statement that they are feeding us, and conservation purchases are ruining the local economy. The reality is that western cattle production could disappear tomorrow without much economic impact on consumers or the western economies.

    • Tom Page Says:

      If western cattle production disappeared tomorrow, it would have a significant impact on certain portions of the western economy. Other areas would be relatively unaffected. I agree that consumers wouldn’t see much change.

      Conservation purchases can change the local economy, but in twenty years of working in the business, I haven’t seen ruin anywhere. Conservation dollars compete poorly against development dollars, but unfortunately there’s no discount for conservation. Purchasing ranches for true agriculture is basically non-existent nowadays, although there are some subsidized deals involving conservation easements that nominally lower the value enough to make ag viable. Usually this kind of deal involves a third party NGO.

      This is a very good time to be a conservation buyer, and the NGO’s who still have buying power recognize this. Many of the urban bigshots who bought a western ranch from 1995 to 2007 now realize that competently running a ranch is a time-consuming, difficult, break-even proposition at best. This was fine when the base value of rural property was consistently going up every year, and these guys could afford to take losses. Not any more. Nowadays, only the best amenity ranches are in demand, and the pool of wealthy buyers has shrunk. The development folks are largely out of the game too (see Harry Hagey’s purchase of the south end of the Wood River Valley in Idaho last week for a prime example). And, as noted above, prices are still too high for traditional producers to have a chance.

      It’s also nice that there’s some momentum behind greater allocation for the Land & Water Conservation Fund. It’s a good way to take advantage of the situation. For many reasons, I think that significant properties will be available for conservation purchase over the next ten years, although there has been something of a holding pattern over the last 12-18 months here in Idaho.

  3. Tim Bondy Says:

    I’m confused I guess. Isn’t all this land being converted into “public land”? Seems like a win-win situation for everyone in Montana. Or will the land be public with no public access?

  4. Debra K Says:

    TomPage, please cite statistics to back up your claim that “If western cattle production disappeared tomorrow, it would have a significant impact on certain portions of the western economy.” I am only interested in the graziers who use public lands, because if cattle producers wish to continue raising cattle on their private lands, that’s their prerogative.

    My research indicates that very few people are actually employed in the cattle production area using public lands, and that it generates minimal revenues, even in rural parts of the West. See e.g.
    Dr. Powers’ article “The Economic Importance of Federal Land Grazing to Western Economies, at http://www.publiclandsranching.org/htmlres/myth_plr_economics.htm, andeconomics section of this article: http://www.thebeckoning.com/environment/cattle/grazing. See also article “Wildlife Watching Larger Economic Sector than Public Lands Grazing in West” at http://www.publiclandsranching.org/htmlres/plr_wildlife_watching.htm and statistics on individual states for hunting, fishing and wildlife watching revenues at http://www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/fishing.html.

    While there may be significant impact on individual producers not able to use public lands allotments, often they could revamp their operations to raise cattle on private lands in a more productive way. I have a neighbor raising all natural beef on his private lands, and he commands a premium in the market.

    In any event, incentives could be provided to the few individual producers to mitigate the impacts, such as have been done with fisherman whose fishing quotas were cut or tobacco farmers having their production quotas reduced. I have yet to see hard statistics that the elimination of public lands grazing would wreak hardship on local economies, as opposed to individuals.

    • Tom Page Says:

      I agree that it generates minimum revenues…this doesn’t mean it’s not centrally important to the welfare (in many ways) of poor rural counties in many parts of the west.

      Your initial comment did not refer solely to public lands ranchers, nor to a phased program involving incentives, buyouts, subsidies and the like, as you describe in your follow-up post.

      I would also agree (full disclosure – I’m a permittee myself) that it may be possible for SOME ranchers to raise cows on private lands in a more productive way, but that would be the minority of public lands permittees, most of whom are totally dependent on subsidized public grass for part of the year.

      I know of several operations that raise natural meat products – they bust their butts as much or more as anyone else, and they still aren’t exactly raking it in. I prefer elk meat over expensive beef, but if they can establish a stable market, that’s great.

      Ideas such as the ones you are describing in your last paragraph are being discussed in various formats, and USFS permits are bought out now and then. Eventually we may see a more streamlined process for BLM permits, but not anytime soon.

      However, I go back to your original statement regarding the immediate cessation of western cattle grazing not having much of an impact on western economies, and I still believe that is simply not accurate in places such as Owyhee, Lemhi, Custer, Camas, Butte or Lincoln County, Idaho to name just a few examples. You disagree, of course, and we’ll both go on our merry way…


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