Vin Suprynowicz

The Libertarian

Vin Suprynowicz

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A third of the U.S. land mass remains forested today -- the same proportion as in 1907 and fully 71 percent as much land as was forested before settlement by the Europeans.

That’s a lot, though only 57 percent of that land remains in private hands, much of it in large tracts held by timber companies.

That means the federal and state governments have already pulled 43 percent of the forests off the tax rolls.

Nature cultists have been in the habit of condemning timber companies for “raping mother nature.” But in a curiously poetic turn of events, the greens are now realizing the lumber companies can actually do something with far greater potential to threaten undisturbed wildlife habitat: sell their land for homes and resorts.

As competition from cheap imported lumber, soaring land prices and pressure from Wall Street for earnings prompt timber companies to sell, there’s a virtual land rush underway as many conservation groups scramble to raise enough money to buy some of the tracts. But to pay the property taxes on them, some have found that -- ironically -- they have only one option: Cut trees and sell timber.

A recent U.S. Forest Service study predicted that more than 44 million acres of private forest land, an area twice the size of Maine, will be sold over the next 25 years. 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 also wants to sell off forest land, by auctioning more than 300,000 acres of national forest to fund a rural school program.

“The nation has never seen anything like this,” said Conservation Fund President Lawrence A. Selzer, whose 20-year-old group is hoping to raise $48 million in the coming months to buy the 16,000-acre Big River and adjoining Salmon Creek tracts in California’s Mendocino County, a sprawling expanse of towering redwoods and Douglas firs, woods that for years have provided an ideal habitat for spotted owls, coho salmon and steelhead trout. “It has the potential to permanently and profoundly change the landscape of America.”

Stephen Levesque, the Campbell Timberland Management area manager who oversees the company’s forest holdings in Mendocino, says new state regulations have made lumber operations increasingly expensive and developers have come by with tempting offers. The company recently sold off 160 acres that are likely to become lots for residential homes. “There’s tremendous pressure for development,” Levesque told The Washington Post recently.

Environmental groups such as the Conservation Fund, the Nature Conservancy and the New England Forest Foundation have tried to limit the environmental impact of the sell-off by purchasing habitats that hold the greatest ecological value.

In 2004, for instance, the Conservation Fund bought 24,000 acres of working forest along the Garcia River in Mendocino County from the Hawthorne Timber Co. for $18 million. It plans to begin logging some trees there this summer to make enough money to pay property taxes and restore key ecological areas.

Now the fund is hoping to buy the Big River and Salmon Creek tracts from Hawthorne and to create a business model that other environmental groups can follow.

A model in which they would cut down some of the trees, just like timber companies.

“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,” said Chris Kelly, who heads the fund’s California office. “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.

Economic realities are thus, as usual, pushing the parties into precisely the right approach.

The federal government already owns far too much real estate -- both in terms of holding it off the tax rolls and out of productive use, and also in terms of the Parks Service’s limited ability to supervise and patrol.

Taxpayers should not be burdened three times by being asked to buy more land and hold it out of use, then to pay for more fences and rangers, and finally to pay more for a house as construction materials grow more expensive due to the fact their tax money has been used to stop sensible harvesting of this renewable resource.

Private owners have always been the best stewards of real estate, since they and their heirs have the most to lose if the property is degraded.

Savvy buyers will pay more for a nice home in the redwoods than for a “tract house made of ticky-tacky” in a sterile, clear-cut land that used to be a forest.

This “shotgun wedding” of productive use and conservation need not be an unhappy one. Both sides have too much to gain.

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