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Turning Plum Creek’s stones

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Long known for its logging activities, and more recently for selling off its timberlands as real estate, Plum Creek Timber Company, Inc. is now increasing its presence in the rock products market. Plum Creek, which owns 1.3 million acres in Montana, is seeking a permit to quarry and collect rocks on 94 sites spanning nearly 15,000 acres in five counties, including Missoula, Lake, Sanders, Flathead and Lincoln. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has issued a draft Environmental Impact Statement recommending approval of the operating permit and is now accepting public comment on the project through June 1.

Though the permit would cover about 15,000 acres and span 20 years, the area that would actually be disturbed is limited to about 3,600 acres. Most of the quarries would be fewer than five acres in size, though some sites would range up to 50 acres.

Patrick Plantenberg, with the DEQ’s Environmental Management Bureau, says most of the work would be done by hand or with the aid of excavators, and that the collected rocks mainly would be sold as building and landscaping stones. The quarry operations won’t be near surface water and will be reclaimed and revegetated to minimize soil damage and the spreading of weeds, Plantenberg says. Plum Creek’s Kathy Budinick didn’t comment beyond saying the company is interested in exploring its property’s many different values.

Plum Creek’s proposed permit is just one indication of a quickly growing market in Montana. The state currently permits 130 small miner rock operations, which disturb fewer than five acres apiece, and five larger quarries, says Pete Strazdas, supervisor of DEQ’s small miner and exploration section.

“[Rock quarrying and gathering] has accelerated pretty dramatically in the last few years,” Strazdas says. “I can only guess that it’s an architectural fad for building stone. Most of this rock goes to the extravagant houses, and a lot of it leaves the state…More than 10 years ago it was almost nonexistent and since then there’s been a steady and marked increase.”

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