Conservationists Strive To Protect Eastern Forests
By John Nagy, Staff Writer
While economic realities alter the viability of forestry and land ownership in the eastern United States, conservation groups are pooling resources to ensure that the region's woods will remain much the way Frost saw them 80 years ago.
Outright open space acquisitions are popular, but the less expensive tool of choice is becoming the easement, the purchase of the development rights to lands that could otherwise attract new construction. Conservationists are buying them up in larger chunks than ever before.
"The single most important tool for the future of working lands conservation ... is a major expansion across this country of PDR [purchase of development rights programs] by state and local governments," vice president Greg Low of The Nature Conservancy ( TNC ) told a group of conservation leaders meeting at the behest of the nation's governors in Washington, DC earlier this year.
Private groups, some supported in part by public funding, are already in the game. In March, the 57 year-old New England Forestry Foundation ( NEFF ) sealed its $28 million purchase of the rights to 762,192 acres of productive Maine timberland owned for over 160 years by the Pingree family - by far the largest such easement in the nation's history.
"Families like the Pingrees who've owned land for a long time know that as the family multiplies . . . they get more disconnected with the property," explained NEFF executive director Keith Ross.
"Their natural tendency is to want their particular interests where they live. That drives property to be subdivided into smaller pieces and that's what really destroys most of the landscape-scale habitat protection that we're talking about," Ross said. ), which represents the interests of 42,000 proprietors and related interests in all 50 states.
Last month, a New York-based paper company with extensive Virginia landholdings readied 40,000 acres of forest in western Virginia for possible sale to a private buyer rather enter an easement agreement with a regional conservation group, according to The Washington Post.
Argow says that while it isn't certain what intentions new owners have for their lands, the declining median acreage of privately held forests is highly suggestive. "Sooner or later, if that land is not eased or zoned or something, it's going to be developed. It's inescapable," he said.
Conservationists seem most insecure about the future of forests in Maine. The changing economics of lumber and paper production and the wavering commitment of corporate landowners in the Pine Tree State has raised anxieties about the future of Maine's fabled North Woods - at over 10 million acres, the largest contiguous patch of forest left in the eastern United States.
Maine's private timberlands are nearly evenly split between corporate and family ownership. Several out-of-state timber and paper companies have pulled out or reduced operations in the last few years. The Natural Resources Council of Maine says that ownership of more than 20 percent of the state's forests - nearly five million acres - has changed hands since 1998 alone.
Although new country cottages are hard to find in the North Woods, conservationists are betting that unpaved roads, pesky insects and colonial-era folktales about the devil prowling the woods as Old Scratch won't be enough to keep would-be vacationers from wanting to build them there much longer.
One corporate proprietor, the Plum Creek Timber Company headquartered in Seattle, Wash., sold 7,000 acres of its Maine property to billionaire media kingpin John Malone last summer. Plum Creek prominently advertises forest "with higher value for other uses than long-term timber management" - including conservation, recreation and residential development - for sale in Maine, Arkansas, Idaho, Louisiana, Montana and Washington on its web site.
Census figures for the area show populations nearly doubling over the last 20 years after remaining relatively stable for two centuries. But analysts say that while the trend is troubling, the impact on Maine's forests so far has been minimal.
NRI figures show with 95 percent certainty that Maine lost only 85,000 of its more than 17 million forested acres to development in the mid-1990s. Meantime, the reversion of idle lands into forest during the period may have actually boosted the state's overall forest acreage by about 30,000 acres.
"We still have as much forest as we've ever had," said Maine specialist Ray Voyer of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the USDA agency that oversees the Natural Resources Inventory, a five-year yardstick of use trends on the nation's non-federal lands.
Conservationists hope to keep it that way by tapping into the interests that many current proprietors, especially local landowning families like the Pingrees have in keeping their lands productive, supporting local economies and preserving whole forests for posterity.
A second massive easement in Maine could safeguard as much as 656,000 acres of industrial North Woods timberland and is scheduled for completion in 2003. Taken together, the two giant easements would double the acreage of easements previously held by the nation's 1,200 private land trusts, according to the Washington, DC-based Land Trust Alliance .
Protections at that scale are rare and likely to happen only in places like Maine where a handful of interests still control great swaths of land.
Preston Bristow of the Vermont Land Trust ( VLT ) says forest easements larger than 10,000 acres, big enough to sustain timber harvesting operations, are becoming more common.
In 1999, VLT and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board bought the development rights to the largest privately held piece of land in the state, 84,079 acres in Essex County owned at the time by the timber giant Champion International. The deal cost the state $4.5 million. Vermont is also co-holder of another 16,500 acre easement on former Champion lands.
Large easements are also appearing more often on Western ranch lands, Bristow said.
Currently, New York state holds part or all of at least half a dozen large easements, mostly in the effort to keep excessive development out of Adirondack State Park, a longtime magnet for the potential construction of summer homes and vacation resorts.
Other states may join New York and Vermont on the large easement list or contribute to projects administered by private land trusts as they divvy up funds generated by voters who have grown more generous and green friendly of late.
Virtually every state legislature along the Atlantic coast has set aside more money for open space protections, although the level of investment from one state to the next is very uneven. Voters in state and local elections approved another $7.5 billion last year toward open space purchases and easements on rural lands of all kinds, bringing the three-year total to $17.6 billion.
Another major infusion of public cash for forest protections remains at the discretion of President Bush. Conservationists hope they can ratchet up allocations for tools like the Forest Legacy Program administered by the U.S. Forest Service. Forest Legacy provided $60 million in aid to land protection projects in 24 states this year and Forest Service officials say state agencies have identified a need for $195 million in federal contributions that could help preserve another 985,000 acres of forest nationwide. Bush's FY2002 proposal gives the program a mere $30 million.
"This is a really unprecedented opportunity and time of change. And conservationists are finding, I think, a more open group of local officials and residents who are pretty interested in trying to protect their way of life and get some security for the future," said spokeswoman Erin Rowland of the Trust for Public Land.
Miles To Go Before They Sleep
Like TNC's Low, most interests at the land table find much to admire in the easement strategy.
Frank Reed, a Vermont ecologist who co-ordinated NEFF's work on the Pingree easement, calls them a "win-win for the land owner and the land trust, because it isn't the government confiscating your land and giving you fair market value. It isn't buying it in fee simple, which is expensive and [would commit] a land trust to managing it, which many of them aren't equipped to do."
"The landowner gets rid of those temptations [to sell to developers]. And at the same time, the conservation community gets a public benefit," he said.
But easements also have their problems. Large as they are, landscape-scale easements like these are very hard to negotiate and finance. Public open space purchases typically put the land in the care of established programs, while easements create thorny management problems that can be magnified when government agencies are involved.
Like the Pingrees, many landowners are wary that state participation will invite undesirable regulations. NEFF's public support was limited to money contributed by Rhode Island and other trustees of the North Cape oil spill settlement, directed to help restore the population of Maine loons lost off the Rhode Island coast during the 1996 accident.
And as VLT's Bristow points out, "whether large blocks of Eastern forest should be natural or wild, or managed for sustainable production of timber is, of course, another question."
Jonathan Carter, executive director of the Augusta, Me.-based Forest Ecology Network ( FEN ), agrees that the Pingree easement protects some attractive and important lands, but maintains that much of it is "under no development threat at all."
FEN backs the creation of a national park it argues would more effectively protect the North Woods. Carter says that while "the Pingrees are by far the best large landowners" in the state, he's concerned that future easements will fail to protect millions of acres of forest from industrial over-cuts and clear cuts.
"We need to take it the next step and look at it as an opportunity to promote wilderness restoration, which would mean purchasing the mining rights and timber rights and everything else," he said.