When state officials last week rejected the plan of Tim Blixseth and Big Sky Lumber Co. to acquire the Taylor Ranch, they may have saved themselves some headaches.
Blixseth, of Oregon, had announced his proposal to buy the 77,000-acre ranch in south-central Colorado, log some of it and trade the rest of the land to the state in exchange for timber rights in northern Colorado. By the end of the week, however, Ken Salazar, director of the state's Department of Natural Resources, declined the offer.
Blixseth and Big Sky currently are in the midst of completing a similar, and widely praised, land-and-tree swap in Montana for 80,000 acres next to Yellowstone National Park. Still, Salazar's rejection of Blixseth's advances did a lot to brighten the days of U.S. Forest Service workers. The reason: Many continue to harbor grudges against the timber baron for his performance on federal lands a decade ago. Warns one, "Wherever he shows up, I'd be concerned."
A newcomer to Colorado, Blixseth has long enjoyed a flamboyant profile in his home state. A young, owlish-looking man with a habit of dropping the names of Hollywood and Washington, D.C., bigwigs, he boasts homes in Portland and Palm Springs. He is a generous political contributor and a songwriter who has had the pleasure of hearing his country music played on local radio stations.
In fact, despite his shaky reputation among federal timber workers, Tim Blixseth has during the past two decades ridden a financial roller coaster that more often than not leaves him off near the top. He began working wood in local mills at a young age. By the early 1980s he controlled nearly a dozen timber-related properties and other investments worth well over a million dollars.
Blixseth began to live well. He moved into a luxury house in Roseburg, Oregon. His second wife, Desiree, says that on occasion the two would charter a Lear jet to Reno for the evening or hop into his helicopter and fly to a restaurant for dinner.
From 1979 to 1985, Blixseth, through various companies, snapped up federal timber sales in Oregon at a ravenous rate. But his timing was lousy, and the timber bust of the early 1980s hit hard. Forest Service records show that by the mid-1980s Blixseth had defaulted on nearly two dozen federal sales worth $8 million.
Worse, Forest Service rangers say Blixseth earned a reputation for "high-grading" the federal lands: He logged the top-quality trees, sold them and then defaulted on the remaining trees, which were of lesser worth. "Everybody did it," recalls one timber worker. "He just did it with more purchases." In November 1986, Blixseth filed for federal bankruptcy protection, listing $16 million in debts.
But Blixseth always had a knack for scaring up deals and money. He explained his business philosophy to a Portland paper in 1989: "What's more important, the money or the deal? The deal is always more important. If you find the right deal, the money will always follow."
Soon after his bankruptcy, Blixseth, who business acquaintances say has an uncanny knack for assessing the worth of trees, again began playing deal-meister. He snapped up huge tracts of private timber in Oregon and Washington, and later became a founding partner in Crown Pacific Ltd., a company devoted to acquiring vast stretches of timberland.
By the end of 1989 the company had written checks for $400 million and controlled 2 billion board feet of timber in Oregon and Washington. And with the spotted owl beginning to claim more and more of the Pacific Northwest's valuable trees, Blixseth, who had moved into a $350,000 house overlooking downtown Portland, was in the driver's seat.
Blixseth and Crown Pacific parted ways about two years ago. Blixseth next surfaced in Montana in the summer of 1992, when he helped form the Big Sky Lumber Co. around the purchase of more than 100,000 acres from Plum Creek Timber Lands, a subsidiary of Burlington Northern railroads.
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Once again, Blixseth found himself calling the shots. Because some of the former Plum Creek land was pristine wilderness--and because of Blixseth's reputation as a logger--the buyout galvanized local politicians to approach Big Sky in an effort to avert an unwanted tree harvest.
"People were falling all over themselves saying, `Hey, he's going to log these lands,'" recalls Steve Clark, a timber management assistant in the Gallatin National Forest. "He gave some politicians ultimatums, and they fell right into it. He's a hell of a salesman."
Since then, the Forest Service has agreed to swap unlogged land in northern Montana for several thousand acres of the partially logged former Plum Creek lands in an attempt to consolidate public ownership of the area. Clark says additional swaps with Big Sky will probably occur.
If Blixseth hopes to score a similar arrangement in Colorado, he is probably out of luck. According to natural resources director Salazar, Blixseth, who held an option on the Taylor Ranch, had approached the state with another exchange proposal: The state would trade loggable lands near Steamboat and in nearby Jackson County for the acres in Taylor Ranch that Blixseth didn't log. (Blixseth first proposed logging 40 percent of the property; he later lowered the number to 20 percent.)
But, reasons Salazar, residents near the areas Blixseth wanted would probably not cotton to the idea of exchanging their trees for land downstate. Besides, he adds, the state intends to acquire Taylor itself--intact. Says Salazar, "I don't think an exchange [with Blixseth and Big Sky] is in the cards of probability.