A deal that will protect some of Montana's most prized land is being hailed by conservationists and elected officials. Seattle-based Plum Creek Timber...

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A deal that will protect some of Montana’s most prized land is being hailed by conservationists and elected officials.

Seattle-based Plum Creek Timber has agreed to sell 320,000 acres to two conservation groups with the backing of the federal government, for a total price of $510 million. U.S. Sen. Max Baucus says it’s the largest deal of its kind in U.S. history. The agreement was signed Monday morning at a ceremony in Kalispell.

Plum Creek said in a regulatory filing that the purchasers will acquire the properties in three phases. The first, which includes approximately 175,000 acres at a purchase price of $200 million, is scheduled to close in December. The next two phases are due to be completed in 2009 and 2010.

The deal also assures a supply of wood fiber to Plum Creek’s mill operations at market-based prices for a term of up to 15 years, according to a regulatory filing by the company.

Supporters say it guarantees key forest land in the Swan Valley and around Missoula will remain protected from development.

The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land say the land will be managed as a working forest with harvestable timber. The government is expected to eventually take ownership of a majority of the land.