TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) – One of the nation’s largest corporate timberland owners plans to buy 650,000 acres of forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Plum Creek Timber Co., based in Seattle, said it had agreed to acquire the property from Escanaba Timber LLC, formerly MeadWestvaco, for $345 million. The deal is expected to be concluded later this year, making Plum Creek the biggest private landowner in Michigan.

Meanwhile, another company – International Paper – has put more than 450,000 acres of Upper Peninsula land up for sale.

The prospect of new ownership has raised concerns about whether the forests will remain open to the public for hunting, fishing and other recreation, which generations of outdoor lovers have taken for granted.

“When a company from out of the area buys it, there’s no longer the community goodwill factor that gives them the incentive to keep public access to the best places,” Marvin Roberson, a forest specialist with the Sierra Club, said yesterday.

Conservationists also worry that ecologically sensitive tracts will be chopped into small blocks and sold for vacation homes and other development, fragmenting wildlife habitat.

Spokeswoman Kathy Budinick said Plum Creek would firm up its plans for the Upper Peninsula land as the complex transaction moves ahead this fall.

But she said the company, which owns about 8 million acres nationwide, opens much of its land for public recreation.

“It’s a very common practice for us,” Budinick said.

In a statement Monday, Plum Creek said it abides by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, a set of tree cultivating and harvesting standards that the industry describes as encouraging environmentally friendly forest management.

Earlier this year, the state and The Nature Conservancy struck a $57.9 million bargain with another corporate landowner to place 271,000 acres of Upper Peninsula forestland in a conservation easement.

The deal provides for continued public access and sharply limits development.

Garret Johnson, chief conservation officer for The Nature Conservancy in Michigan, said the group would consider proposing a similar arrangement for at least some of the Plum Creek land, which stretches across the central and western U.P.

“The goal would be to keep it in private ownership and on the tax rolls, keep it in production so it contributes to the local economy,” Johnson said. “But also keep it open for hunting, fishing, snowmobiling and other recreation, and keep it from being fragmented.”

Gov. Jennifer Granholm played a key role in negotiating the earlier conservation easement. Matt Johnson, director of Granholm’s U.P. office, said she would talk soon with Rick Holley, president and chief executive officer of Plum Creek.

But it will be only a courtesy call with no specific proposals about a conservation easement, he said.

“The window is open for such discussions in the future,” Johnson said.

The acquisition will bring Plum Creek’s holdings in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula to 1.2 million acres.

The company said it would sell a “significant portion” of the pulpwood harvested from the land to the NewPage Corp. mill in Escanaba, continuing a long-standing arrangement.

“The addition of these well-managed lands expands our participation in attractive hardwood timber markets and complements our current ownership in the region,” Holley said.

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