Timber companies borrow a tool from environmentalists

by Mark Matthews

Conservation easements help protect private forests — and keep logging jobs alive, too.

St. MARIES, IDAHO — Decades of antagonism between logging companies and conservationists may be replaced by some good news here in the rugged mountains of Idaho’s Panhandle region. At least, most people seem to think it’s good news.

Potlatch Corp. wants to negotiate conservation easements on as much as 600,000 acres of forest, private parcels that are mingled with public land between Lake Coeur d’Alene and the St. Joe and Clearwater rivers. The easements would rule out subdivisions while providing for continued access for hiking, horseback-riding, hunting and other recreation. Logging would continue as well.

The Trust for Public Land (HCN, 2/28/00: Acre by Acre) hopes to arrange the easements in a series of deals that will tap both federal and private money. Potlatch would receive several hundred dollars per acre, potentially adding up to many millions of dollars — the difference between the land’s value for current uses and its value as real estate. Some restrictions would likely be imposed on logging in certain areas — along streams and trails, in special wildlife areas and in unique places such as remnant cedar stands.

The Spokane-based timber company, which has 2,500 employees in seven Idaho mills, would preserve most of its jobs, while the easements would “eliminate the fractionalizing of the forest” — an important conservation goal, says Mark Benson, a Potlatch spokesman.

And what sounds good here also sounds good in other places, despite tough times for land protection in general. Federal funding for timber easements is increasing, even as funds for buying land outright have been slashed. So across the nation, former adversaries are negotiating the largest conservation easements ever. And unlike other green trends, this one enjoys the support of the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress, who like the idea of keeping land in private hands, and keeping timber companies in business.

“Because of the economic value (these easements) represent in protecting timber jobs,” says Scott Wilber, with the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land, “we’re not selling it just as a conservation project.”

Record-breaking deals

Timber easements have gained tremendous ground in the Northeast, where public land is in shorter supply. In 2001, for example, using mostly private donations, the nonprofit New England Forestry Association sealed a deal to protect 750,000 acres in Maine, setting the record for easement acreage. Last year, the Trust for Public Land secured easements on nearly 200,000 acres of forest in New Hampshire, about 5 percent of the state.

Timber easements in the West have been spurred by the Forest Legacy Program, established by Congress in 1990 and run through the U.S. Forest Service. Forest Legacy began small, then gained momentum as more states signed up; the program has supported projects in 33 states, including Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. Funding has increased greatly in recent years, to $65 million last year. This year, the Bush administration has requested $90.8 million.

Forest Legacy projects take years to put together, and locals must raise at least 25 percent of each project’s cost. One that’s nearly complete covers more than 142,000 acres in Montana, along the Thompson and Fisher rivers. The The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks partnered with the Trust for Public Land to negotiate the deal with Seattle-based Plum Creek Timber Co. The easement will protect the company’s holdings, as well as a popular fishing area, and habitat for game herds and endangered species.

The Montana project is rated the fourth-largest easement of any kind, with an estimated $34.7 million price tag. About half the money has come from Forest Legacy; the rest is from the state, donations of land, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Habitat Conservation Plan Fund.

If the Idaho easements go through, they will add up to the second-largest deal so far. The initial one covers several thousand acres, and it’s likely to be completed any day now. When it is, Potlatch will receive about $500,000 in federal funds funneled through the Idaho state government; the private matching funds will come from foundations and donors that are interested in “preserving working forests,” says Benson. The next Potlatch easement will likely be bigger; as the Bush administration and Congress hash out next year’s budget, $3 million to $4 million is proposed for Forest Legacy deals with Potlatch, Benson says.

The specific terms of each deal — how much logging will be allowed and exactly where it will take place — are negotiated with whichever foundation or donor provides the private funding, Benson says. The state of Idaho will hold the Potlatch easements, which “seemed to make it easier” politically, because it emphasizes state control rather than federal control, says Kirk David of the Idaho Department of Lands.

A pragmatic solution

But not everyone likes the idea. Critics say it’s just another way to squeeze more money out of the forests — that timber companies sell off their best land for cabins and monster homes in fashionable places like Big Sky, Mont., and then go for easements on the rest.

Timber easements are “just a fallback position — a less-expensive, less-effective alternative to purchasing the land for public ownership,” says Steve Kelly, a board member of Friends of the Wild Swan, a group watchdogging timber easement negotiations in Montana. “Public purchase is always the best for protecting the land,” Kelly says, because it increases the chance the land will revert to a wilder condition, becoming better habitat for grizzly bears and other wildlife.

But the main mechanism for buying land for federal ownership is a program within the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which taps offshore oil and gas fees. And under the Bush administration, that program has been cut from $445 million in 2001 to $187 million in next year’s proposed budget.

Given the political realities, most conservationists voice some degree of support for timber easements, and an interest in burying old grudges against the timber industry. Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League, which submitted comments in the Potlatch negotiations, says, “We’re tentatively optimistic.”

The author writes from Missoula, Montana.

Trust for Public Land 406-443-4017, www.tpl.org

Potlatch Corp. 208-799-1781, www.potlatchcorp.com

Forest Legacy Program 202-205-1469, www.fs.fed.us/spf/coop/programs/loa/flp.shtml.

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