- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2002

ROANOKE An environmental group has purchased the rights to cut trees on a 228-year-old cattle ranch in Southwest Virginia as part of a novel approach to conserve wildlife habitat in the South, where most of the forest is privately owned.

The Nature Conservancy of Arlington is expected to announce the agreement today with the Stuart Land & Cattle Co. near Abingdon. The conservancy will pay the Stuart family a percentage of the appraised value of the timber in exchange for the rights to harvest trees on 5,750 acres of the ranch.

Neither side would comment on how much the deal is worth, except to say that it will last forever, even if the property changes hands.

"I'd just rather not tell you how much, but if you multiply it by forever, it comes to a pretty good amount," said a chuckling William Alexander "Zan" Stuart Jr., general manager and chief executive officer of the Stuart ranch.

The agreement is a first for the Nature Conservancy, which is better known for purchasing major tracts of forest outright. The nonprofit organization controls 1,400 preserves across the country.

The timber plan with the Stuart family is part of the conservancy's Conservation Forestry Program, which seeks to control an entire region by compiling harvesting rights on private land.

The idea is simple, said group spokesman Daniel White: With nearly 90 percent of Southern forests held in private hands, it is impossible for anyone to adequately manage wildlife habitats on a regional scale.

"You can't buy enough land to protect an entire watershed," Mr. White said. "But if you can get enough land enrolled in this sort of program, cumulatively over time, you can make a difference."

By selectively logging, or not logging at all, the Nature Conservancy can protect habitats of songbirds such as the hermit thrush, magnolia warbler and Swainson's warbler, all of which need large contiguous tracts of forest to survive.

The Stuart ranch, a bucolic stretch of rolling hills and pasture on Beartown Mountain, is especially important for the conservancy because its watershed drains into the Clinch River, which is home to numerous populations of rare fish and endangered freshwater mussels.

"A lot of the unplanned timber harvesting that's been done in the area by private landowners has had detrimental effects, getting silt into the water stream," said project supervisor Stephen Lindeman. The Nature Conservancy would avoid clear cutting, and it would fight erosion by carving fewer roads and skid trails.

The Stuart family, which has kept the property for generations, initially had trouble signing an agreement that would relinquish control of part of the ranch forever, he said.

The property dates to 1774, with the original deed signed by Patrick Henry. In two centuries, the ranch has had several famous visitors. Virginia Gov. Henry Carter Stuart spent part of his childhood on the ranch. During the Civil War, William Alexander Stuart supplied horses from the ranch to his younger brother, Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.

Mr. Stuart said the family agreed to sign over control of the timber as a way to ensure that the ranch always would have a thoughtful caretaker.

"We just didn't want the property developed and chewed up, and we felt the Nature Conservancy would do the best job of that," he said.

Dick Austin, a spokesman for a local environmental group, praised the deal.

"They can make a tremendous impact on slowing the fragmentation of the forest," Mr. Austin said. "Obviously, there will be tensions down the road between careful timbering and keeping the [annual payments] going. So the environmental community will be watching this closely."

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