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Saving a yankee forest.

"Creative purchasing" has staved off development pressure in one chunk of northern New England, but is it just a holding action?

In the northernmost northeast corner of the United States in a vast stretch of forest that evolved in Yankee fashion. To the untrained eye, it is thoroughly wild; dense stands of spruce and fir, punctuated by birch and maple, hide moose, black bear, and some say, even the panther.

But this is not the king of untrammeled wilderness that westerners know. This Yankee wilderness is no stranger to the logger's clearcuts, or to the forester's fights with invading hardwoods, or to skyborne attacks against the spruce budworm. It has been shaped and directed by man. It is dotted by small towns and laced by logging roads. Here fishermen have built ramshackle temples to the rainbow trout and the landlocked salmon.

For almost a century, the timber industry has been the largest owner in the North Country. Boise Cascade, Champion International, Diamond Occidental, International Paper, and Great Northern Paper have managed some 10 million acres - a total of 15,000 square miles.

The companies have been benevolent rulers of their northern kingdoms, allowing hunting and fishing and berry gathering, offering long-term leases for private camps, and even tolerating trail-cutting by the locals. Without huge bureaucracies, national debates, or congressional legislation, the companies and the people of the North have created a multiple-use forest.

"An working landscape," Paul Bofinger calls it. As President and Forester of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, Bonfinger has devoted his career to keeping that landscape working.

"There is a balance between the resource use and public access," Bofinger says of the North Country. "The commodity base is kept intact, while the bulk of the land is available for recreation. That is why, if you ask people in northern New England, they say leave it the way it is."

Despite this unusual popular support for a working forest, northern New Englanders may find it increasingly difficult to keep it the way it is. One of the North Country's greatest assets is also one of its worst threats: it is within a day's drive of some 65 million people.

Nearby is the White Mountain National Forest with more than five million visitors a year. And a scant few hours to the south is the burgeoning Boston-southern New Hampshire metropolis. Its expanding suburbs are creating what Bofinger calls a "ratcheting effect": new developments form a base for newer development that expand ever northward.

Where not so long ago the New England urbanite bought a vacation home on a lake in central New Hampshire or southern Maine, he now forsakes the crowded, expensive resort areas for the pristine woods of the North Country - from Vermont's Northeast Kingdom through Coos County of New Hampshire to northern Maine.

Gradually, the great timberlands of the North have become more valuable for their development potential than for their timber. And increasingly, it is no longer up to northern New Englanders whether the North Country stays the way it is. It is up to people like Sir James Goldsmith.

A Paris-based financier Goldsmith is owner of Occidental Generale, which bought Diamond International, one of the major landholders in the North Country. Goldsmith first sold off the company's mills, then turned to the forests. They had been valued at about $100 an acre for timber management.

Goldsmith offered them for more than twice that amount. Up for sale were four huge blocks totalling almost a million acres in northern New England, including 97,000 acres in upstate New York, 90,000 in Vermont and New Hampshire, and 800,000 in Maine.

Conservationists were taken aback. "It's the biggest offering we've ever had to deal with," says Bofinger. "There were land sales in the past, but they were usually a lot quieter. One company would call another and ask, 'Do you want to buy our property?' But the Diamond land is different."

The difference was the asking price, which made it a poor investment for forestry - and, apparently, a great investment for development.

The Diamond sale made forestry analyst Perry Hagenstein seem remarkably prescient. In 1987 Hagenstein, then Immediate Past President of the American Forestry Association, published a report on the northern New England forests that predicted changes in their ownership "and perhaps in the character of the region" itself.

Is the Diamond

deal just the tip

of the iceberg?

Hagenstein's report estimated that some 10 million acres - 70 percent of Maine's forests and 40 percent of the forested area of New Hampshire and Vermont - would be up for sale by the year 2000. Within a decade, he said, the "most accessible wildlands" will begin to look like the overdeveloped lakes in New Hampshire and southern Maine, and ski areas will begin cropping up.

In short, piece by piece of the North Country will begin to resemble what natives call the "flatlands" - a suburbanized wilderness where absentee owners post their land against sportsmen and locals and other such riffraff.

It such wildland bastardization is a shame throughout the North Country, it is a sin in the Nash Stream watershed of New Hampshire's Coos County. A superb trout stream, the Nash is fed by pure mountain runoff through wildlife-rich forests.

A hiker atop the 3,000-plus-foot Percy Peaks can see the towering Presidential Range to the south. If the Nash Stream country were divided up, conservationists said, the nation would be the less.

Naturally, this wouldn't be the first time that a beautiful tract was threatened by development. But the traditional solution - outright purchase of the land using state or congressional appropriations - was precluded by a few factors.

In the first place, the "working landscape" that Paul Bofinger describes would not fit neatly into the management plans of most public forests of parks. Secondly, this is not a good time to tell the U.S. Congress to ignore a monster deficit and buy up pretty northlands.

And thorniest of all, Sir Goldsmith insisted that the 90,000-acre tract, 22,000 acres of which were in Vermont, be sold in one piece.

The land was put up for sale last February. James River, a timber company, bought up the land in Maine. In late May, before conservationists had had time to work through its problems, Diamond accepted an offer for the New Hampshire and Vermont land - including the Nash watershed - from the New Hampshire-based investment partnership of Rancourt Associates.

"We were surprised that a private buyer willing to pay the asking price emerged so suddenly," Bofinger said in his organization's newsletter. "We thought we had a little more time. The lessons are how vulnerable our prized North County timberland is, and how quickly major pieces can go."

He added, ominously, "The Diamond land is only the beginning."

Solutions will

nee to address

the realities of

New England.

Fortunately, our story does not end here; in fact, it doesn't end at all - yet. As of this writing, state and federal officials were negotiating what promises to be a unique interagency agreement to keep the Nash Stream area a working landscape While traditional land acquisitions preserve a land's beauty or its resources, this agreement will preserve an entire way of life.

Congress quickly appropriated more than $5 million to save half of the 90,000-acre tract. A little over a million was given to the state to buy inholdings and lands that abut the White Mountain National Forest.

Now comes the hard part: what to do with the remaining $3.9 million of federal money. The state and the U.S. Forest Service are trying to figure out who will manage what. "Who has the say on harvests, wildlife, public access?" Bofinger asks. "For that matter, how do you even appraise land like that?" In any case, the result will likely be joint management of an undivided tract of 45,000 acres.

After that comes the really hard part: what to do when, as Perry Hagenstein predicts, the forest industry sells the rest of its nine million acres in northern New England. "The state cannot afford to do a repeat of the Nash Stream deal," notes Henry Swan, a consulting forester in Lyme, New Hampshire.

Swan is participating in a federal study, paid for with some of the congressional appropriation for the Diamond tract, to determine future land ownership and management in the region. Headed by Steven Harper, Supervisor of the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont, a multistate committee will study how to preserve the way of life on a forest too vast to buy outright.

"The handwriting is clearly on the wall," says Swan. "The people of the northern New England states want to see the land managed as of old and not broken up. Industry may not remain the owner, but the use will be the same."

How can that be achieved?" All you have to do is a little arithmetic," says Paul Bofinger. "Neither the state nor the feds have the financial resources to buy every piece of land that we'd like to have. And even if we had the millions that would be necessary - I don't think it would make political sense to acquire it all."

The trick, he says, will be to "leverage the public dollars." By the creative acquisition of easements and selected ownership rights, rather than outright purchase of land, Bofinger hopes that the North Country's way of life can be preserved for an affordable price.

Not that such creative purchasing will be easily. "It's going to take a powerful effort," says Bofinger. "No state can do it alone. We need a common interstate effort and some federal participation as well. We're not just saving this for in-state residents; a lot of this land gets visitors from the south and from across the country."

And what happens if this scheme doesn't work? "It will take away from northern New England something that is absolutely essential to its character," replies Bofinger. "I don't want to see it turned into Condo City, and it's unrealistic to see it turned into a National Park. So we need to do something in between."

Whatever this entails may set an example that transcends the region. Diamond is not the first forest corporation to be bought up and sold off piece by piece. "Timber companies are ideal targets for takeovers," explains forestry consultant Kate Robie, "because their stock doesn't reflect the land's market value."

Robie adds, however, that timberland sales reached their peak during the early 1980s, when the industry was in a slump. "The trend is slowing down some," she reports.

What counts at any rate is not the sale but the buyer. In New England, says Paul Bofinger, "There are tremendous economic pressure on landowners. The land value is greater than the timber value."

Bofinger thinks that any lessons gained from the Diamond sale and the government's creative response might apply to other regions, such as the Lakes States, where development pressure might be strong and where industry has played an important role in the evolution of land use.

But it is in New England, with its booming economy and soaring land values, where a way of life seems most threatened. "You don't buy large tracts of land anymore just for the timber value - at least for land you can drive to," says Bofinger sadly. "Those days are gone forever."
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Author:Heinrichs, Jay
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1989
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