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Timber Corporations, Real Estate and Community Forests

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felicep | Jan 12, 2010 10:55 AM

Weyerhauser – the nation’s largest timber company – has announced that it will convert itself into a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT).  The company’s stock rose about 7% when the conversion was announced in December.

The Weyerhauser announcement came as no surprise to those familiar with western forest management; it has been under discussion for several years.   Many forest products companies with large forest holdings have already converted to REITs or created REITs to complement other operations.

Large corporate owners control a good amount of the West’s prime development property. Once remote, these holdings are now on the fringes of cities like Seattle and Portland. Where I live along the Redwood Coast, timber giant Green Diamond Resources (formerly Simpson) owns forest lands – now mostly clearcuts and tree plantations - on hills and ridges surrounding the Humboldt Bay Metropolitan Area (where the cities of Eureka and Arcata are located).

The company would like to develop those lands for so-called “mc-mansions” on 10 to 40 acre parcels. But the Healthy Humboldt Coalition wants the Humboldt County General Plan – currently under revision – to prohibit subdivision of the forests.  Healthy Humboldt argues that dispersed development will not only harm the environment but also destroy a key aspect of the quality of life along the Redwood Coast – outstanding scenery.  They favor urban growth boundaries , in-fill development and sustainably managed forests. 

Another option for industrial timberlands located near towns and cities is to convert those lands to community forests.

Community forests have been around for quite some time; one of the most well known is on the Redwood Coast. The Arcata Community Forest, owned and operated by the City of Arcata, provides sustainably-logged redwood as well as recreation and ecosystem services.

In recent years interest in community forests has blossomed across the West and world-wide. In part this is a reaction to the fact that clearcuts have migrated from the backcountry far from community viewsheds to the slopes directly above and visible from the communities. The Northern California town of Weaverville, for example, is working to establish a community forest on lands above the town which have been intensively logged by Sierra Pacific Industries – California’s largest timber company. In recent years, SPI clearcutting near town has prompted protests from landowners who find their views degraded and their water systems overwhelmed by sediment. The Weaverville Community Forest will be managed by the local Resource Conservation District.

Many forest communities are realizing that they need to own the forested watersheds from which they draw water in order to protect the quantity and quality of water produced. The US Forest Service provides technical assistance and a grant program that can be used to establish community forests. 

Will western timber companies succeed in developing the prime real estate they own on western urban fringes? Or will local planning commissions take effective action to protect the water quality and forested viewsheds which attract urban refugees, retirees and foot-loose businesses?   And is the current avalanche of interest in community forests only a passing fancy or a sign of things to come?

The answers to these questions will be determined in western boardrooms and council chambers across the West. Stay tuned.

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