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The lands nobody knows.


The roar that swirled around Dan Nardi and me at the edge of the South Fork of the Shenandoah could have been whitewater, as slategray snowmelt swelled one of Virginia's most beautiful and popular rivers. But as we hiked through trees and across a field, the rumbling continued at exactly the same deep pitch, and the steam-puffing complex of the Merck pharmaceutical company rose into view.

That complex of 100 or so acres, on which Merck manufactures and packages a variety of medicines, comprises less than 10 percent of Merck land. Surrounding the plant lie another 1,000 acres of Merck property - fields, forests, a marsh, and nearly three wild miles of river corridor.

Merck is a microcosm of a large but largely unrecognized class of land ownership in America. The most recent statistics compiled by the U.S. Forest Service show that 179,361,000 acres of timberland - 52 percent of all lands classified as timberland - are held by owners other than timber companies and farmers. It's impossible to further break down this figure into lands owned by individuals versus those owned by businesses, institutions, and other groups, but a close look at virtually any landscape in the country can make clear that such properties comprise a lot of land. Factories often acquire extensive acreage to protect the aquifers and other underground resources they need, as a security or safety buffer or to provide for future expansion. Many corporations that located in what was rural isolation years ago now find themselves functioning as forested wildlife islands in a sea of development. And because many industries are located along or near rivers, in order to use the water for cooling or other purposes, riparian strips and wetlands are common on these corporate lands. So these lands, like Merck's riverfront property, tend to include some spectacularly valuable wildlife habitat.

Back in Nardi's office, with the Blue Ridge Mountains brooding through the window, he sketched a map of the Merck property with deft familiarity. As administrator of the several leases Merck lets on its agricultural land, Nardi is as close to a land manager as the plant has. In the nearly 50 years that Merck has owned the property, no land management other than a continuation of previously existing farming has been considered. No one ever suggested any.

"We're not in the business of managing land," Nardi said, "and I'm not sure I'd know what else to do but leave it alone."

It was to raise corporate consciousness about just how much could be done with corporate lands that the Wildlife Habitat Enhancement Council (WHEC) was formed. Founded in 1988 after several years of informal discussions between DuPont executives and the National Wildlife Federation and other conservation groups, WHEC is a nonprofit coalition of businesses and environmental groups. Although located in Silver Spring, Maryland, near Washington, DC, WHEC is a non-lobbying group whose purpose is to promote enhancement of corporate land for wildlife. The idea is catching on fast - companies such as ALCOA, Exxon, Texaco, General Electric, Monsanto, Dow Chemical, and DuPont have joined, as have smaller firms like Domino's Pizza and Patagonia.

"WHEC programs usually have minimal costs," said executive director Joyce Kelly, "and benefits include boosting employee morale, improving relations with local communities, and revising old images by showing the environmental constituency that industries can be good stewards and good neighbors."

Among some two dozen projects currently under way is one that could quietly revolutionize the quarry industry. Vulcan Materials Company is the largest producer of aggregates in the country, with 120 active quarries in 17 states and hundreds more inactive sites. In the past, Vulcan viewed the several hundred acres of woods and meadows it usually acquired around each of its pits merely as static buffer. Since quarries are themselves relatively static, needing stone reserves lasting 30 to 100 years to justify their location, development in recent years has overtaken many sites.

"Management began to notice reports from quarry superintendents that sites were teeming with wildlife," said Vulcan representative Jim Fyock. The idea dawned that perhaps active management of those lands to attract wildlife could build community acceptance for new quarry sites by refuting the common claim that quarry blasting and crushing drive wildlife away.

"If our pilot project on one inactive and four active quarries in northern Virginia is successful," Fyock said, "we will extend the program to all of our suitable properties. And we see ourselves as industry leaders, with the potential to influence more than 3,500 other quarries across the nation."

The potential for influence of a different sort motivates the management of innumerable rural retreats held by such organizational owners as the YMCA and YWCA, Boy and Girl Scouts, and other youth groups as well as churches across the country. Brethren Woods Camp and Retreat Center in western Virginia, owned by the Church of the Brethren, may represent the typical management approach to such properties.

"Our 90 acres of woods probably don't have any valuable timber," said program director Bruce Braun, "although as a nonprofit organization we might welcome the opportunity to harvest some - but not at the expense of aesthetics." The property, bought in 1958 for use as a children's summer camp, has come to have many different year-round uses, including family reunions, retreats, and conferences. Land management has focused on developing hiking trails, creating a lake, and removing storm-damaged trees.

Colleges and universities represent yet another type of ownership, often with a motley assortment of management goals. Alumni often bequeath to their alma mater properties that may be managed primarily for lucrative returns. Quite a few colleges own acreage dedicated to scientific experiments. Some maintain recreational property for faculty, alumni, and students. And then there's Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, with an entire unorganized township (27,000 forested acres) granted to it by the state in the early 19th century to sustain scholarships for New Hampshire students.

"We have a multiple-use philosophy, and there was a 20-year plan in effect when I was hired three years ago," said college forester Ed Witt from his home in Andover, Maine. He lives within 30 miles of what everyone calls "the college grant." Because in past decades the spruce budworm forced massive salvage cutting of softwoods, the Dartmouth plan currently emphasizes hardwood harvesting and the establishment of new softwood stands.

"Our deer populations are down because the evergreen stands the deer used for protection against heavy snow cover are reduced," Witt told the author. With a dual degree in forestry and wildlife management, Witt works with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department to develop strategies that mesh timber cutting with wildlife needs. He also manages a variety of smaller tracts that Dartmouth owns. "It may be uncommon for a university to have as much land as Dartmouth," Witt said, "but it's not unusual for a college to own and manage land - the University of New Hampshire has a couple thousand acres, and the University of Maine has a bunch."

When it comes to size of holdings, however, electric utilities surely must be among the largest of all corporate/institutional landowners. Consumers Power of Michigan, for example, is credited with being the largest landowner in that state with an estimated 17 million acres. With "only" a quarter-million acres, Pacific Power and Light (based in Oregon) pales beside Consumers Power, but it has been a pioneer in corporate land management.

"We built our first park on a hydro facility in the mid-'30s," said Glenn Gillespie, Pacific's public information officer, "and our first fish hatchery in 1931. Pacific has a multipurpose approach to land management." Recreational values dominate around shores of reservoirs, with attention given to wildlife details of the landscape.

Room is also found for innovative projects such as 30 acres of power-producing windmills (called a wind farm) on a blustery point along the southern Oregon coast. "The last I heard," Gillespie said, "saltwater corrosion had disabled about half those mills, but as techniques improve, I expect the idea will be successful."

In 1970 Pacific Power began active timber management on about 10,000 acres. Ed Weiss, environmental sciences manager, has a staff that includes a couple of wildlife biologists. "The philosophy has changed from selective cutting to clearcuts, but our biggest clearcut will be 20 acres," Weiss said. "We plan to leave half the forest in a mosaic for wildlife. We also save certain eagle-roosting trees along a large salmon run that attracts them."

Such constraints keep Pacific from intensifying the harvest of its Douglasfirs, alder, and maples to get the maximum possible dollar return, Weiss said, "but timber revenues are still significant. And in the long run, we protect other values." Timber revenues are mostly returned to the stockholders.

In recent years Pacific has found that its biggest land-management headache is boundaries. "We've acquired land over a long period of time, and our records are deficient," Gillespie says. "We've ended up in court for something called `adversive possession,' a concept by which someone uses land for a particular purpose for a length of time and then claims he has a right to continue that use indefinitely."

Another aspect of corporate boundaries occurred to me as I drove away from the Merck offices after my jaunt along the river. Just down the road was the Adolph Coors brewery. Coors owns about 2,700 acres of forest and fields, and three miles of river frontage, around its 300 acres of operating site below the Blue Ridge peaks of Shenandoah National Park. The Merck and Coors property boundaries come within half a mile to form an almost contiguous tract of nearly 4,000 acres. Those corporate acres - enhanced by such inexpensive projects as planting fencerows along natural travel routes through the fields, foresting wide buffer strips along the river, and providing wood duck and other bird boxes - could help nurture a rich roster of birds, mammals, and fish.

I asked both Coors and Merck if they would be willing to consider active, ecologically oriented management of their mutual properties, perhaps working with local conservation groups. My two Coors contacts are still batting the question back and forth, more like a bureaucracy than a business. Merck plant manager Denis Toomey had a more direct answer, and one that would fit beautifully into WHEC's penchant for involving employees in its projects. "Our interest would depend a lot on employee involvement," he said.

Muted but unmistakable in his speech was the lilt of the Irish. Before coming to Virginia, Toomey worked in Kilsheelan, Ireland, at one of Merck's many worldwide sites. Merck is hardly unique in being multinational. When you add them up, the possibilities for greening up corporate lands are global.

More and more of those wooded tracts that you and I drive past and often wonder about are the holdings of land trusts, which function in a variety of ways to protect land or to manage it to maintain its natural values. Most people conversant with the strategies of conservation have heard of The Nature Conservancy, that white knight of the real-estate world dedicated to preserving biological diversity through business acumen. Since its establishment as a nonprofit (and nonpartisan) membership organization in 1951, TNC has bought, sold, swapped, bargained, and coaxed its way toward protection of nearly four million acres of the most ecologically rich lands in the U.S., Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The largest privately owned nature preserve system in the world, TNC owns well over a million acres outright.

The Conservancy's holdings took a quantum leap early this year when it purchased the 321,703-acre Gray Ranch in southwestern New Mexico. Believed to be the largest private land acquisition in conservation history, the ranch straddles the Continental Divide and harbors a rich diversity of mammalian wildlife. Its huge size makes the ranch an ideal laboratory for advanced study in many fields of science.

How do you oversee such an enormous chunk of land? The Conservancy is in the process of forging a plan for working with public and private conservation interests to protect and manage the natural systems of the Gray Ranch.

Other acreage has been protected through legal restrictions on development or transfer of ownership to appropriate conservation groups or public land agencies in deals supervised by TNC. In any negotiations, land stewardship - by which is meant management designed to enhance and permanently maintain the full complement of native plants and animals found on a given tract - is TNC's ultimate goal.

Several other large organizations, including the American Farmland Trust, American Forest Foundation, National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Trust for Public Land, acquire or otherwise work to protect property with natural or cultural values.

One of the most important phenomena of the contemporary conservation scene, however, is the emergence of a grassroots land-trust movement. The idea of local land trusts is not new - the Trustees of Reservations in Massachusetts, for example, will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. But according to Jean Hocker, president of the Land Trust Alliance, a national network of nonprofit land conservation organizations, 30 percent of the more than 800 existing land trusts were formed in the past five years. "People are unhappy at what they see happening around them," Hocker said, "and they're beginning to realize that if the local landscape is going to be protected, they have to do it themselves."

A local land trust is most commonly organized and run by volunteers as a private, nonprofit corporation to protect a particular piece of land valued for its wildlife, scenic, or recreational amenities. Increasingly, however, local land trusts are hiring paid staff and becoming involved in regional land-use planning. Most trusts hold and manage land; some act only as an agent to transfer land or its development rights to protective public or private entities. For example, in 1988 the American Forestry Association, though it does not normally function as a land trust, bought a tract of private timberland amid Indiana's Charles C. Deam Wilderness, part of the Hoosier National Forest, to preserve its wilderness character. The land will be officially transferred to the U.S. Forest Service this year.

Trusts are helping to pioneer the implementation of such concepts as conservation easements and limited development. Because they focus on local terrain and local needs, trusts can respond to the unique conditions in any given community. Because they are private, trusts can move quickly and creatively in ways government bureaucracies cannot. To date, local and regional land trusts have protected more than two million acres, from forests in New Hampshire to prairie in Nebraska to part of Big Sur along the California coast.

As our nation continues to urbanize, these "lands nobody knows" will become more and more important - and less and less a secret. Anything we as individuals or groups can do to further the protection and management of the natural values of those lands will be a donation to our own future.

PHOTO : Quarries are prime examples of lands with great management potential. These views show a whitetail deer and wild mallards on sites of Vulcan Materials Company in Virginia.

PHOTO : Dartmouth's 27,000 acres of forest serve many uses, including James F. Hornig's environmental studies. The Nature Conservancy is plotting how best to manage 321,703-acre Gray Ranch in New Mexico (below).

Chris Bolgiano, a frequent contributor, is a Virginian who specializes in natural-resources subjects.
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Title Annotation:private forests
Author:Bolgiano, Chris
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1990
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