Montana county demands prompt federal release of logging documents |

Montana county demands prompt federal release of logging documents

HELENA, Mont. ” Missoula County officials alarmed about talks between the Forest Service and Plum Creek Timber Co. are pressing for speedy federal release of documents.

The private negotiations involve easements under which Plum Creek uses federal forest roads to access company timberlands. Representatives of some western Montana counties, including Missoula, say they worry the negotiations between the company and the Forest Service’s chief overseer will foster conversion of timberland into residential subdivisions, increasing the cost of rural services such as fire protection.

Deputy Missoula County Attorney D. James McCubbin on Thursday appealed refusal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which includes the Forest Service, to expedite processing of an information request the county filed on June 25 under the federal Freedom of Information Act. McCubbin said expedited handling was necessary for the county to share time-sensitive information with the public. The requested information includes records relevant to discussions between Plum Creek and Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service.

“We have determined that your request does not qualify for expedited processing because you have articulated no threat to public safety and because there has already been considerable publicity about the easements,” Rita Morgan, the USDA’s Freedom of Information Act officer, wrote on June 26.

Morgan could not be reached for comment Thursday. She is out of her office until Monday, according to a recorded telephone message.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, anyone has the right to request access to federal agencies’ records or information. Agencies must disclose records not covered by exemptions set forth in the law. It says agencies shall respond to requests within 20 business days, a period that begins when the request is received by the appropriate office. But an agency is not required to send documents by the 20th day; they can be released within “a reasonable time afterward,” according to the FOIA Reference Guide.

In a telephone interview Thursday, McCubbin said county officials worry that the USDA will take more than 20 days to provide records, and that easement provisions discussed by Rey and Plum Creek will become final before the public can get information to which it is entitled.

Rey said road easements were clarified, not rewritten. On the question of potential residential use of Plum Creek land, he has said the company has long been able to gain access through national forest roads for any purpose, not just timberland management. Missoula County officials say that contradicts previous Forest Service statements, including one in a 2006 letter from the Seeley Lake Ranger District in western Montana.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has questions about the Rey-Plum Creek talks and said he cannot get answers because federal officials have not been forthcoming with information. Tester wants the Government Accountability Office to conduct a review and is awaiting a GAO response to his request.

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