According to a Juliet Eilperin article in the Washington Post, a recent U.S. Forest Service study predicted that more than 44 million acres of private forest, an area twice the size of Maine, will be sold over the next 25 years.
She goes on to report that the consulting firm U.S. Forest Capital estimates that half of all U.S. timberland has changed hands in the past decade. The Bush administration is in there swinging from the heels as well, thirsting to sell off forest land by auctioning more than 300,000 acres of our National Forest to fund a rural school program.
It’s been said that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
The Bush sell off certainly follows similar logic in getting rid of a national asset to fund a short-term shortfall, in schools of all things. One wonders what would be next? Advertising banners on the Washington Monument to fund No Child Left Behind?
But what’s happening to private timber sales is not only interesting, it opens up a kind of ‘third way’ to think about the development of recreational space.
There’s always been tension between those who are terrified to see any development at all in public lands, for fear of never-ending demands and decline. The other side of that issue finds it an entirely rational argument that deep wilderness, where no man sets his foot, is useless to society. Certainly it’s a truth to both constituencies that wild lands are an unduplicatable resource, because no one’s making them anymore.
Now comes the timber industry and, finding that tree farming in high-growth climates beats the costs of cutting in remote and slow-growth locations, they’re looking at the sale value of their holdings against harvest value. Wall Street pushes this reallocation of assets. Financial markets inexorably look to ‘highest and best use’ of assets, no matter if the publicly traded company deals in gumballs or lumber. Since timber companies are stock driven and profit oriented, they’re slowly cashing in those assets.
Initially, conservation groups attempted to hold these acreages together, but the price is too high, the lands too large and their resources too small.
Maybe that’s a good thing.
Not to say it’s all a slide to money-interests. Felicity Barringer reports in the NYTimes that International Paper announced it would receive $300 million in a deal arranged by the Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund for 217,000 acres in 10 states around the Southeast. The company also said it had sold 69,000 acres of forestland in Wisconsin for $83 million to the Nature Conservancy.
By far the largest deal involves 400,000 acres of land near Moosehead Lake in central Maine. The quick succession of sales provide golden opportunities for conservation organizations, but they don’t have the gold. Conservation money is dwarfed by the amounts offered by developers of residential communities, golf courses and hunting clubs.
Whether that’s good or bad news depends on who looks over their shoulder.
We desperately need hunting and fishing opportunities, as well as attractive land for second-home communities. The high-tech of the city increasingly demands high-touch wild-places within reasonable driving distances to alleviate the intensity of the work place. And we are increasingly a high-tech society.
Quoting Chris Kelly, who heads the California office for Conservation Fund,
"We need to move away from this black-or-white idea that either it’s preserved or destroyed, it’s a national park or not enough. If you’re trying to protect a landscape, if you’re trying to protect 300,000 acres, it’s impractical" to preserve the entire area as pristine wilderness.”
Creative solutions are not beyond the reach of combined interested parties. Eilperin’s article continues,
Jeff McEvoy owns Weatherby’s Lodge in Grand Lake Stream, a town on the edge of Maine’s North Woods. When Typhoon LLC, a timber investment company, wanted to sell off 339,000 acres in the region, the New England Forestry Foundation raised $30 million along with locals, enough to buy the development rights and create a 27,000-acre working forest that is logged but supports wildlife.
"People come here for the pristine wilderness experience," said McEvoy, who runs hunting and fishing trips out of a lodge that has thrived for 130 years.
Perhaps a creative combination of interests will keep Weatherbys going another 130. In any case, it’s no longer good enough or even equitable to keep fencing off wild lands to all but backpackers.
With conservation groups riding shotgun on planned developments, it may be that we come up with a truly creative third way that takes pressure off National Wilderness at the same time it allows a closer-in semi-wilderness experience.
How these lands are developed is far more important than if they are developed.