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Conservationists Vie To Buy Forest Habitat

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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

FORT BRAGG, Calif. -- The Big River tract in California's Mendocino County is a sprawling expanse of towering redwoods and Douglas firs, woods that for years have provided an ideal habitat for rare spotted owls and endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout. Now, it's all up for sale.

Big River, neighboring Salmon Creek and dozens of other forests across the nation have come on the market in recent years as timber companies shed holdings that are worth more as real estate than as a source of lumber. The trend has spurred a land rush that has conservation groups scrambling to raise money to buy environmentally sensitive tracts in competition with private investors seeking to snap up the land for development.

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 acres that make up Big River and Salmon Creek. "It has the potential to permanently and profoundly change the landscape of America."

The United States still has large swaths of forest -- much of it private -- that provide critical habitat for large animals such as bears and cougars as well as recreational opportunities for the public. But if the selling spree continues, environmentalists fear, these areas could be cut up into much smaller parcels in which condominiums and trailer parks would replace soaring trees.

The sales have attracted limited national attention because they are mostly private transactions and involve local planning decisions, but the stakes are enormous. In the Pacific Northwest, New England, Southeast and parts of the upper Midwest, traditional timber companies or newly emerging timber investment management organizations, known as TIMOs, own vast stretches of forest that rival the national forest system.

Today, a third of the U.S. land mass is forest -- the same proportion as in 1907 but just 71 percent of what existed before settlement by Europeans -- and 57 percent of it is privately owned. But competition from cheap imported lumber, soaring land prices and pressure from Wall Street are now prompting timber companies to sell.

Stephen Levesque, the Campbell Timberland Management area manager who oversees the company's forest holdings in Mendocino, said 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 said.

International Paper Co. spokeswoman Amy J. Sawyer said her company is "contemplating selling some or all" of its 6.8 million acres of forest land scattered across the country and focusing on producing more profitable products such as uncoated papers and packages.

"We're exploring whether there's more value in holding and operating the land or in selling it," Sawyer said. "That's what we're weighing."

And the St. Joe Co., a onetime timber and paper outfit, is pushing to build on tens of thousands of its acres on Florida's Emerald Coast. Advocacy groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council are fighting to preserve the land, whose long-leaf pine forests, cypress swamps and wetlands sustain red cockaded woodpeckers and dozens of other endangered and threatened species.

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, but they cannot afford to buy all the vast expanses and halt this trend outright.


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