QUANTICO Tree-huggers and tree-cutters make strange bedfellows. At least, that’s what common perception holds, fueled by such well-publicized battles as the 1990s debate over how to protect spotted owls in the dense timberland of the Pacific Northwest.
But a complex multimillion-dollar deal sealed last month among a conservation group, loggers and Maryland state officials provides an example of an increasingly common form of cooperation between conflicting groups.
The deal, approved Dec. 18 by the state’s Board of Public Works, ensures that more than 25,000 acres of forests and wetlands in seven counties on the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland will never be developed into subdivisions or strip malls. Almost 22,000 acres of the land, however, will be actively logged.
“We are on the verge of a sea change for conservation and forestry in America,” said Patrick F. Noonan, chairman of the Conservation Fund, a nonprofit organization based in Arlington that spotted and negotiated the deal.
Mr. Noonan estimates that 10 million acres of timbering land will go on sale across the country by 2010, presenting a massive opportunity for environmentalists. To make sure that forest land is never paved over, Mr. Noonan’s group is pioneering what he calls a “new brand of conservation for the 21st century,” bringing together public and private partnerships that balance economic growth and good science.
“We’ve been trying to work at the intersection of those two powerful forces,” said Mr. Noonan, 65, former president of the Nature Conservancy and a trustee of the National Geographic Society.
Much of the land set aside in Maryland is monotonous one pine after another over remarkably similar territory. But environmentalists said the miles of trees and other plants play a key role in the area’s ecology, filtering pollutants and sediments from water as it trickles into the Chesapeake Bay.
“We view forestry as the very best active use of land for the environment,” said William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “It would be better to have the land absolutely untouched by human hands, but forestry preserves a lot of the natural habitat if it’s done well.”
Allowing the land to be logged will keep it generating tax revenue for local government on the Eastern Shore, where logging remains the second largest industry. It will also save more than 100 jobs in a region where unemployment levels are sometimes three times the state average.
Preserving jobs was crucial to making the agreement palatable to state officials hesitant to invest state funds while tackling a sizable budget deficit.
In the end, the state will use $12 million in bonds and $3.4 million from the budget to acquire conservation easements on 21,766 acres. The purchase met the approval of Republican Gov.-elect Robert Ehrlich, who has sharply criticized outgoing Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, for overspending, and won over a skeptical Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, also a Democrat.
“When you get into it, it was one of the best land deals ever made by the state,” Mr. Schaefer said after voting for the proposal.
The deal was valued at almost $37.9 million for land owned by the Glatfelter Corp., a paper manufacturer based in York, Pa. Forestland Group of Chapel Hill, N.C., paid $16.1 million for the property and timbering rights on the acreage.
Because the state has development rights to that land, it can never be developed, even if Forestland sells it. The Conservation Fund put in $6.2 million for the remaining 3,400 acres, which will be purchased by the state once funding is available.
That portion includes an attractive waterfront stretch on Quantico Creek, a tributary of the Chesapeake, which could become a state park.
The land is spread over some 260 parcels in a part of Maryland where populations are sparse but rapidly growing.
“I could put my finger on four [parcels] that could go in a weekend if they were for sale,” said Tim Connelly, the Conservation Fund’s Maryland representative. After that? “You’d have different parcels identified every few years and developed.”
Since its foundation in 1985, the Conservation Fund has helped pull together deals to preserve 3.4 million acres nationwide. That includes a 300,000-acre blockbuster three years ago in New York, Vermont and New Hampshire that was the largest public-private, multistate conservation partnership in U.S. history. More than two-thirds of that land is still open for logging.
In Maryland, the fund has completed more than 100 land deals, including the Chesapeake Forest acquisition in 1999, in which 76,000 acres were preserved on the Delmarva Peninsula. That includes 18,000 acres in Delaware and Virginia and 58,000 in Maryland the largest land deal in state history. The Glatfelter deal ranks second.
Mr. Noonan said the key to their success is taking a market-based approach to big business. Part of that is speaking the language, a process aided by the fund’s corporate council of volunteers from blue-chip companies such as Shell Oil, Microsoft and Coors who help advise the nonprofit on potential partnerships. More than 250 corporations and 300 foundations help support the fund.
Development and population growth are inevitable. But, Mr. Noonan said, mitigating their effects requires a strategic, sustainable vision that takes into account both shareholders and spotted owls.
“We have a challenge and we believe, acre for acre, going forward into the 21st century, we should be able to match development with conservation dollars,” Mr. Noonan said.