Weyerhaeuser selling to timber investment group with Wilks Brothers ties

As speculation started to ramp up regarding the sale of Weyerhaeuser’s forest lands in Montana, the buyer stepped forward to keep rumors in check.

On Saturday, attorney James A. Bowditch sent an email to media outlets announcing that Southern Pine Plantations would be buying 630,000 acres of timberland from Weyerhaeuser. The sale is expected to close in the second quarter of 2020.

While we can’t provide specifics before the deal closes, (Southern Pine Plantations) has no plan to change the long-standing practices of the prior owners related to public access, forest management, grazing, existing outfitting agreements and conservation easements, and other programs.  Again, we can’t comment further at this time, but we felt it was in the public interest to provide this assurance to concerned Montanans,” Bowditch wrote in the email.

Weyerhaeuser announced the sale on Dec. 17, saying a “private timberland investment company” had agreed to by the land for $145 million in cash.

Because the sale includes a 110,000-acre conservation easement and Weyerhaeuser has long allowed locals to recreate on some its lands, people worried what the intent and policies of the new owner would be. Would they still be able to hunt, hike or cross-country ski in their favorite areas of the Salish Mountains between Kalispell and Libby?

In particular, wildlife advocates were concerned how new ownership and possible development would affect the ability of grizzly bears to migrate between the Northern Continental Divide and Cabinet-Yaak ecosystems. Such connectivity is essential to keeping grizzly populations healthy, both in numbers and genetically. Without gene flow among all the populations, grizzlies could become inbred, particularly in the Cabinet-Yaak, which hosts only about 60 bears.

So far, only a few bears have tried to navigate across the people-packed Flathead Valley. Reducing the forested areas around the populated areas would make travel more treacherous for the large carnivores.

Bowditch’s words may put a few fears to rest for now.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks director Martha Williams said last week that her employees would reach out to the prospective buyer once it was known. The identity known, they’ll try to educate the Georgia-based company about Montana’s wildlife concerns, from grizzlies and lynx to elk and grouse.

But a few concerns remain about why the southern company would want Montana timber. Although most of its property is in Georgia, Florida, Mississippi and South Carolina, it is an investment company that touts its ability to “move fast on acquisition opportunities.”

According to its website, “We buy large acreage; keep some of the land that fits our long term management goals; then sell some of the land as large investment blocks and some of the land as individual tracts.”

In other words, they can buy big stuff and turn around and sell it as small stuff that the rich can more easily afford.

That’s what happened three years ago in Idaho.

That’s when the Potlatch Corporation sold 172,000 acres of former Boise-Cascade land in southern Idaho to Southern Pine Plantations for $114 million. Potlatch had bought the land in 2007, anticipating the development of the Tamarack ski area, which later went bankrupt.

Three months after Southern Pine Plantations bought the land in May 2016, the company quietly turned around and sold it to the Wilks Brothers.

Dan and Ferris Wilks of Cisco, Texas, are two billionaire brothers who have been buying up land in both Idaho and Montana since 2012 after making more than $3 billion in the fracking industry.

They gained notoriety in Montana after they tried to talk the Bureau of Land Management into swapping some land for the public inholding on their Lewistown-area ranch known as the Duffee Hills, a haven for elk and elk hunters who can fly into the little landing strip. When the BLM refused after an outcry from hunters, the Wilks shut down an access road to the Wild and Scenic Missouri River.

Having already developed a working relationship with Southern Pine Plantations, the Wilks Brothers may be trying to raise money to buy some new property. Earlier this year, they put four ranches up for sale in eastern Montana. If they scored the total asking price for all four, they’d pocket almost $44 million.

 Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com