Conservation Groups Buy Working Forests

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The Oregonian SISTERS, Ore.—Brad Chalfant eases a 12-passenger van over a jagged logging road just miles from the Three Sisters.

Once owned by a timber company, the 50-square-mile forest that Chalfant, executive director of the Deschutes Land Trust, hopes to buy isn't the kind of place that typically attracts tour groups.

Invariably, someone on a fundraising tour will ask about the stumps and slash piles, which are everywhere.

"Why would I give money to cut trees down?" asks a woman on a November day.

The question highlights Chalfant's challenge as he shapes the future of forestry in Oregon: How do you convince the public that logging forests is a means of saving them?

Conservation groups are now the forest industry's biggest allies, as institutional investors buy millions of acres of forestland nationwide.

From Maine to Montana, they're giving rise to a new model of private ownership, called community forests, hoping to save them from homes and subdivisions.

They're finding creative ways to finance big purchases and pushing a surprising tactic to preserve trees: harvesting them.

In Oregon and Washington, some conservation groups are looking to purchase forests for the first time. But even though the cool real estate market means it's a great time to buy, it's also a tough time to fund raise.

"The recession is a huge challenge," says Tom Tuchmann, of U.S. Forest Capital, which helps conservation groups purchase forests from investor-owners. "But it's also an opportunity. Pricing is level, but it's going back up again."

Here, two miles outside of Bend, Oregon's first community forest could be created on a 30,000-acre parcel known as the Skyline Forest, formerly owned by timber giant Crown Pacific Partners. When the company went bankrupt, Florida-based Fidelity National Financial Corp. acquired the land, hoping to build a gated residential community with dazzling views of the high desert.

From a clear-cut outcrop, Chalfant points out a million-dollar view that a developer would most certainly covet.

"When you have those types of growth pressures, it's really clear what the fate is for these timberlands," Chalfant says. "If we thought private owners were going to keep the land in forestry, we wouldn't be interested in owning land."

By 2030, 44.2 million acres of private forestland across the country will be developed, according to a 2007 Forest Service study. That's twice the size of Maine.

While the rate of development has been much slower in Oregon, the number of structures in forests continues to grow. Oregon loses an average of 2,600 acres of wildland forest a year, 80 percent of which is converted to low-density residential, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.

"Economically, those counties are going to be better off if that land doesn't go to development," says economist Ray Rasker, who studied the impact of development in Montana's forests. "From a firefighting standpoint, any tax benefit would be outstripped pretty quickly."

In Oregon, nowhere has the real estate market been hotter than in Deschutes County. The county has also lost large tracts of forestland.

"The land use system is under attack," says Erik Kancler, executive director of nonprofit Central Oregon Landwatch. "It's an issue that's fallen off the radar."

And despite the recession, development pressures from destination resorts, subdivisions and single homes are rising.

In Klamath County, applications to subdivide property have soared recently from six a month to 120 a month.

"There's more development happening now than during the housing boom," says Leslie Wilson, county planning director. "Building permits are way down, but planning is way busy. People are definitely getting ready."

In Washington's Mount St. Helens area last year, Skamania County officials put a moratorium on development until they could come up with a zoning plan.

"There was a sudden building of large, mansion-type homes, even in the economic doldrums," says Cherie Kearney with the Columbia Land Trust. "It caught everyone off guard."