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A race to reclaim forests: timber-managed land is up for sale, and forest communities are scrambling to maintain pristine environments and their way of life.

Balanced on a log suspended over a glacial pothole, Anne Dahl is searching the foot-deep water for endangered howellia and their delicate white florets no bigger than her baby finger. A red-naped sapsucker lands in an aspen above her, poking its head into a cavity to feed its chicks. It would not surprise Dahl to hear a grizzly bear making its way through the stand of larch and Douglas-firs just beyond her wetland perch.

She dreams of the day this area will belong to the loggers, contractors, teachers, and retirees of Swan Valley, her home since 1982. She and her neighbors have been working for five years to establish a community forest owned and managed by the residents of this spectacular valley tucked between the Mission Mountains and the Swan Range in western Montana.

They envision hunters coming here to stalk elk, loggers to fell selected trees. They imagine school kids learning how the fragile underwater beauty of howellia is linked to the rise and fall of vernal pools, and how the pools relate to the threatened grizzlies that roam nearby.

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"I fear we are on the threshold of losing all of this. We just want the opportunity to make a difference managing the lands that surround us," says Dahl, director of the Swan Ecosystem Center.

Across the country, communities like Dahl's are reclaiming the forests in their backyards. From the North Woods of Maine to the coast of California, citizen-based groups are acquiring local land and proclaiming themselves responsible for protecting and managing the natural resources that grace and nurture their communities.

It's more than public-spirited altruism. An unprecedented transfer of forest ownership has galvanized leaders like Dahl in communities surrounded by privately owned timberland. Lumber companies are unloading their holdings to meet the demands of a changing economy. Instead of traditional forest management to supply logs to their sawmills, they are divesting their land to free up capital, in part for overseas expansion.

Thirty million acres of forestland have changed hands since 1996, says Michael Goergen, executive vice president of the Society of American Foresters. Another 12 to 15 million will transfer out of industry ownership in the next decade. That's over half the approximately 80 million acres timber companies nationwide owned during the 20th century. By 2015, analysts predict, they will have sold a forested area as large as New England, leaving their combined land base smaller than the state of Indiana.

Transferring the ownership of this much forestland would have major implications under any circumstances, but under the current trend the implications are staggering. Financial institutions dominate the buyers: timberland investment management organizations (TIMOs), real estate investment trusts (REITs), limited liability and master limited partnerships. TIMOs alone have bought over a third of the 30 million acres of private industrial forests already sold, says Goergen. Another 5 million acres belong to various other financial institutions.

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Management by financial groups does not follow the traditional logs-to-the-mill approach. It is focused on diversified portfolios and bottom-line profits, which offers enormous opportunities for conservation. In addition to sawlogs and traditional forest products, huge tracts of land could be managed for wildlife, recreation, and eco-services such as carbon sequestration and water retention.

More likely, however, these lands will be sold for development. Because they are investments first and timberlands second, the forests being purchased by financial institutions are more vulnerable to conversion to nontimber uses than when they were owned by traditional timber companies.

"The green visors on Wall Street are calling the shots," says Goergen. "It's all about profits."

The alarm bells clanging throughout forest communities have sent leaders scurrying for solutions, shocked over these shifts in corporate timberland ownership. Although they have historically ridden out the booms and busts of resource-based economies, they have enjoyed relative stability knowing timber industry landowners were managing their forests for the long-term. Rural residents had access to the vast private lands in their backyards for hunting, fishing, and recreation and knew corporate owners depended on them for labor, services, and support. The new timberland owners have turned these traditional relationships topsy-turvy.

Rural communities are not waiting for Washington or corporate America to sort things out. They are striking out on their own--forging new partnerships, inventing tailor-made funding mechanisms, and determining for themselves their relationships with local forest ecosystems.

After years of involvement in the publicly owned forests in their backyards, rural leaders are turning their attention to private timberlands. It's a proactive movement aimed at self-determination, says Carol Daly, president, of the Communities Committee of the Seventh American Forest Congress. "They want to keep their communities the way they want them to be."

Some are urging government agencies to acquire timberlands and manage them to maintain working forests. Some are finding private purchasers, others are raising funds to purchase the development rights through conservation easements. Still other communities are plunging into an indeterminate future by acquiring the lands for themselves and their children's children.

Community-owned forests are not a new concept in America. More than 3,000 communities in 43 states own forests totaling 4.5 million acres; New England leads with as many as 500 town forests. Several date back to the earliest European settlements, when a combination of English commons and Native American communal lands produced community lands as early as 1630. Others are the legacy of the Great Depression, when counties and towns acquired land by default through widespread failure to pay property taxes. But some are brand new, products of community ingenuity in the face of potential threats to local economies and values.

ERROL, NEW HAMPSHIRE

For at least a decade the 303 residents of Errol, New Hampshire, had been nervously watching as aggressive logging razed the tiny state's forests at an astonishing 17,500 acres a year. They were specifically concerned about the Thirteen Mile Woods, a 5,300-acre gateway to Errol in the state's northeast corner. The woods have been industrial timberland for over a century, including the colorful era when logs were floated through town on the Androscoggin River to sawmills downstream. Recently the forest has catered to hunters and anglers, summer tourists and snowmobilers whose business has kept Errol's Main Street shops alive.

When Lyme Timber Co., a New Hampshire-based TIMO, bought the land in 2000. Errol residents knew conventional TIMO land management trends did not bode well for the woods. They recognized that out-of-state loggers could take advantage of New Hampshire's dearth of timber harvest regulations. The Thirteen Mile Woods was vulnerable to ownership that would "bag it, wipe it, and sell," says Julie Renaud Evans, a forester hired by Errol.

The town fathers went directly to Lyme and asked the TIMO to sell the woods to them. It was a visionary plan inspired by the potential loss of the community's natural beauty, its working forest, and the income they provide.

"What we have here is woods, water, and winter," says Bill Freedman, an Errol selectman. "We have to keep these assets as pristine as we can--game in the woods, fish in the streams, and trails."

Lyme agreed to sell the Thirteen Mile Woods, and earlier this year Errol voters approved a $2.2 million bond as their share of the $4.4 million purchase price. Half the money will come from the federal Forest Legacy program and the nonprofit Trust for Public Land. The challenge for Errol is developing a way to finance the other half. Town officials are pioneering financial tools that could include New Markets Tax Credits, which allow investment in low-income communities.

Errol may need special legislation to do it but the town is determined to own the Thirteen Mile Woods, says Errol Selectman Larry Enman. "We'd like to keep it wild. If we don't buy it somebody will subdivide it."

BROOKS TOWNSHIP, MICHIGAN

In Brooks Township, Michigan, it was the pending sale of 320 acres owned by a Grand Rapids builder that spurred creation of a community forest. Although the area is quite rural, local residents feared the township, which grew by 35 percent in the last decade, was ripe for development.

Hunters and anglers have traditionally used land owned by the Ivan Koetje Trust, in the state's west-central section. Residents wanted to maintain those activities and protect the land's natural resources, which include white pine and oak forests, trout streams, seven acres of wetlands, and the remnants of a dry sand prairie. The endangered Karner blue butterfly lives here along with Blanding's turtles and songbirds. The Koetje tract is part of a 1,100-acre corridor linking state and federal land in the Newaygo Outwash Plain, a 125-mile-long swath pitted by glacial debris deposited by melt waters 10,000 years ago.

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In 1999, when local residents learned the land was for sale for $700,000, they teamed up with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which owned the adjacent 80-acre Ore-Ida Prairie. The two had already worked together to develop a community-based plan identifying and protecting unique natural features.

To acquire the Koetje Trust land, they adopted a binding management contract that allowed Brooks Township to apply for a $670,000 state grant, with TNC putting up the 25 percent local match through its 80-acre parcel. Because state funding restrictions prohibit a conservation easement favored by TNC, the partners pioneered an agreement giving Brooks Township full ownership but limiting activities on what is now known as the Coolbaugh Natural Areas.

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"We have the opportunity and challenge to manage local growth while protecting natural features and preserving our way of life," says Dale Black, a Brooks Township supervisor.

Only nonmotorized recreation is allowed in the Coolbaugh community-owned forest, which focuses on enhancing wildlife habitat. A coordinator hired to implement the Brooks Township vision developed a school science curriculum based on local plants and animals. The township has budgeted $5,000 a year for trails and signs.

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SWAN VALLEY, MONTANA

In Swan Valley, the Swan Ecosystem Center's Dahl has watched communities across the country find innovative ways to acquire land that supports their local economies and lifestyles. It was a visit to a 2,000-acre town-owned redwood forest in Arcata, California, that inspired her to propose the idea in her remote Montana community.

Timber jobs have declined in Swan Valley since the 1990s. In 1997, when the U.S. Forest Service threatened to close its only office within 40 miles, Dahl and other community activists opened their center in the district ranger office to help maintain this traditional segment of the local economy.

But the new millennium brought new threats, this time from private timberlands that checkerboard the mountains rising on both sides of the Swan River. Plum Creek Timber Company, which owns nearly half the ground available for logging and forest activities, began putting land on the market. As a real estate investment trust, it is responsible to investors to seek the highest and best use of its assets. In Swan Valley, that means trophy homes.

Most of the 900 year-round residents want to protect the natural integrity of the valley, which hosts threatened gray wolves and is one of the few places outside Alaska where grizzly bears and humans co-exist. They also want to retain a working forest that allows logging and maintains public access to hunting, fishing, firewood cutting, and berry picking. Trophy homes threaten all of that by fragmenting the land with fences, gates, and "no trespassing" signs.

The red flag for the Ecosystem Center activists was Plum Creek's plan to put 20,000 acres on the market--10,000 for real estate development. The Ecosystem Center began drafting legislation to create an entity that would buy and manage all the timber company's holdings in Swan Valley. Plum Creek refused to sell. Then the Center tried to buy a smaller block of land, but Plum Creek again said no.

The Seattle-based company manages most of its Swan Valley property as timberland for future supply to its local mills, says Jerry Sorensen, Plum's Creek senior land asset manager for the Rocky Mountain region. It has sold 7,000 acres to the Flathead National Forest for conservation and plans to sell another 7,000. With 10,000 acres on the market for private real estate, Plum Creek is left with 55,000 acres for timber management.

"We're not going to sell land we've designated to manage for timber," says Sorensen.

Dahl and others call Plum Creek lands "highest priority" for the community, but negotiations have not gone beyond the option to purchase at market value after a "real estate cut," which generally removes every merchantable stick. "We've always said if they want to buy land we've targeted for sale, fine," says Sorensen. In Swan Valley's current heated market, real estate prices have soared to $7,000 an acre, seven times its value growing trees.

Frustrated by these direct dealings, the Swan Ecosystem Center recently hired staff to oversee a capital campaign to raise money for the land it is determined to purchase. "Our goal is to stop the bleeding with a community forest," says Dahl. "Very little more land can go to development before things begin to unravel."

But logging is not the Swan ecosystem's biggest threat; people are. Bear experts say the northern Continental Divide ecosystem can lose no more than four female grizzlies without risk to the entire population. Last year nine grizzlies were killed or died after interaction with Swan Valley residents.

Dahl doesn't expect to get a community forest with its timber stand intact, but local ownership would maintain wildlife corridors and give the land a chance to heal. It would provide restoration jobs to local woods workers and, eventually, logging jobs. By then it might even provide income to invest in local schools, libraries, and health care.

"The immediate gratification is access for hunting, hiking, and all the things we do in the forest," she says, "but we're really doing this so our grand-kids have a forest to manage and enjoy."

Contributing editor Jane Braxton Little attended the recent Community-Owned Forests Conference in Missoula, Montana.

Story and photos by Jane Braxton Little
COPYRIGHT 2005 American Forests
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:COMMUNITIES
Author:Little, Jane Braxton
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
Words:2346
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