New West investors buy up open space near parks, forests

first_img AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREGame Center: Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, 10 a.m.But arriving here already rich and in love with the landscape, he said, also means his profit motive is different. “A lot of it is more for fun than for making money,” said Foley, who estimates he has invested about $125 million in Montana in the past few years, mostly in real estate. The rise of a new landed gentry in the West is partly another expression of gilded age economics in America; the superwealthy elite wades ashore where it will. With the timber industry in steep decline, recreation is pushing aside logging as the biggest undertaking in the national forests and grasslands, making nearby private tracts more desirable and valuable to people who enjoy outdoor activities and ample elbow room and who have the means to take title to what they want. Some old-line logging companies, including Plum Creek Timber, the country’s largest private landowner, are cashing in, putting tens of thousands of wooded acres on the market from Montana to Oregon. Plum Creek, which owns about 1.2 million acres here in Montana alone, is getting up to $29,000 an acre for land that was worth perhaps $500 an acre for timber-cutting. WHITEFISH, Mont. – William P. Foley II pointed to the mountain. Owns it, mostly. A timber company began logging in view of his front yard a few years back. He thought they were cutting too much, so he bought the land. Foley belongs to a new wave of investors and landowners across the American West who are snapping up open spaces as private playgrounds on the borders of national parks and national forests. In style and temperament, this new money differs greatly from the Western land barons of old – the timber magnates, copper kings and cattlemen who created the extraction-based economy that dominated the region for a century. Foley, 62, standing by his private pond, his horses grazing in the distance, proudly calls himself a conservationist who wants Montana to stay as wild as possible. That does not mean no development and no profit. Foley, the chairman of a major title insurance company, Fidelity National Financial, also owns a chain of Montana restaurants, a ski resort and a huge cattle ranch on which he is building homes. “Everybody wants to buy a 640-acre section of forest that’s next to the U.S. Forest Service or one of the wilderness areas,” said Plum Creek’s president and chief executive, Rick Holley. As a result, population is surging in areas surrounding national forests and national parks, with open spaces being carved up into sprawling wooded plots, enough for a house and no nosy neighbors. Here in Flathead County, on the western edge of Glacier National Park, the number of real estate transactions, mostly for open land, rose by 30 percent from 2003 to 2006, according to state figures. The county’s population is up 44 percent since 1990.The U.S. Forest Service projects that over the next 25 years, an area the size of Maine – all of it bordering the national forests and grasslands – will face development pressure and increased housing density. But the equally important force is the change in ownership. According to a Forest Service study, not yet published, more than 1.1 million new families became owners of an acre or more of private forest from 1993 to 2006 in the lower 48 states, a 12 percent increase. And almost all the net growth, about 7 million acres, was in the Rocky Mountain region. Institutions, pension funds and real estate investment trusts have been particularly aggressive buyers. Over the last 10 years, at least 40 million acres of private forest land have changed hands nationwide, according to Bob Izlar, the director of the Center for Forest Business at the University of Georgia. It is a turnover that Izlar said was unmatched at least since the Great Depression. In ways that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, environmentalists and representatives of the timber industry are reaching across the table, drafting plans that would get loggers back into the national forests in exchange for agreements that would set aside certain areas for protection.last_img read more