Out of the Woods — Land&People

Even if you don't spot the lumber and plywood mills on the banks of the St. Joe River in St. Maries, Idaho, there are unmistakable clues that this is a logging town: the 40-foot-tall statue of Paul Bunyan hefting his ax on the front lawn of the high school, the fading signs stenciled on barroom doors warning that no caulk logging boots are allowed inside, the 3 a.m. opening of the Handi Corner Diner, so loggers can fuel up before heading into the woods.

"By 5 a.m. the amount of activity around town is just phenomenal," says Norm Linton, forest manager for Potlatch Corporation. Potlatch owns the mills along the river, employs 2,500 woods workers and millworkers, and is the largest private landowner in the state. St. Maries started from a single 19th-century sawmill at the junction of the St. Maries and St. Joe Rivers. Timber and good river transportation for getting the timber to market were the reasons for choosing the location, and timber has remained central to the town's reason for being.

Timber keeps St. Maries alive, says Larry Haskell, owner of the St. Maries Boot Corral on Main Street, where Haskell sells more logging boots than any other style. "I don't think anything would be here if it weren't for the logging." Across Idaho, the timber industry generates approximately $1.4 billion in revenues each year and provides more than 14,500 jobs.

But the private forests around St. Maries provide much more than logging jobs. "Forested private land offers local communities many nontimber benefits," says John Robison of the Idaho Conservation League. "These include watershed protection, wildlife habitat, and recreation opportunities."

The interwoven complex of public and private forests in the Idaho Panhandle offers a 2.2-million-acre forested landscape–critical habitat of sufficient size to support endangered and threatened species, such as Canadian lynx, gray wolf, and big game species, such as elk, deer, moose, and bear. Where streams run clear and cold through forested lands, they support world-class fisheries for native westslope cutthroat trout and habitat for federally threatened bull trout.

These ecosystem values also translate into economic benefits for towns like St. Maries. World-class outdoor recreation attracts residents, retirees, and tourists who help fuel the local economy and contribute to Idaho's $167 million in annual tourism-related tax receipts.

"Fishing and hunting have always been a strong component of the economics for this state," says Alex Irby, who works in the Idaho timber industry and is also a commissioner with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. In addition to trophy trout and salmon fishing and hunting for elk and other big game, superb hiking and horseback riding attract many visitors. A network of backcountry logging roads accommodate all-terrain vehicles, mountain bikes, and snow machines.

Changes Endanger Communities and Forests

But timber towns like St. Maries and the forests that support them face looming changes that could damage both economies and ecosystems. Timber industry mechanization is reducing the number of timber jobs, and less harvestable timber is available from public forests. At the same time, some private landowners are selling timberland for development of cabins or second homes, removing the land forever from the timber supply and dramatically decreasing its value for wildlife.

"Revenues from traditional sources will not be enough to compete in the world of forest products and landownership," says Mark Benson, Potlatch director of public affairs in Idaho. "We see increasing emphasis by forest-owning companies on converting lands to nonforest uses that derive higher monetary value from the land."

The same is true across the nation. According to a 2001 report by the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, as many as 12 million to 15 million acres of industrial timberland–an area nearly the size of West Virginia–will be transferred out of industry ownership over the next decade. According to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, more than a million acres of forestland is developed each year.

The trend worries residents across the political and social spectrum in St. Maries and similar forest-based communities nationwide. People in the timber industry worry that land sold for development cannot support logging. Hunters, anglers, off-road enthusiasts, and snowmobilers–and the businesses that cater to them–worry that development will inevitably bring with it "No Trespassing" signs and a loss of traditional forest access. And environmentalists worry that inappropriate development will disrupt wildlife corridors and damage watersheds–and that efforts by logging companies to maximize profits will lead to overcutting and threaten the health of the forests, rivers, and streams.

Easements Protect Forests and Communities

But there is hope for a brighter future for timber towns and their forests thanks to the adaptation and increasing use by forest landowners of a traditional conservation tool–the conservation easement.

Conservation easements have been used for years to protect scenic open space, wildlife habitat, and working agricultural land. Easements are now being used to protect working forestland and the many conservation values associated with these lands. Nationwide, the use of this specialized kind of conservation easement–commonly referred to as a working forest conservation easement–has helped protect more than two million acres of forestland from development over the past two decades.

While every easement is unique, a timber company that sells a working forest conservation easement agrees to certain restrictions on how the land can be used. Development generally is not allowed, and the easement may also stipulate how and where timber may be harvested, how much can be harvested, and whether public access is permitted. In return for giving up development rights associated with the land and agreeing to other restrictions that may limit the land's value, the timber company receives compensation through the sale of an easement.

Increased use of the tool has been prompted not only by the rising threat of development, but also by the availability of federal funds from the U.S. Forest Service's Forest Legacy Program, specifically targeted to prevent the conversion of forests to nonforest uses. To be eligible for the funding, states must officially establish a Forest Legacy Program, produce an Assess-ment of Need that establishes program goals and priority areas, and provide at least a 25 percent match with money raised through state, local, and private funds. All transactions are voluntarily agreed to by landowners, and while a few projects involve acquiring outright title to the land, most protection is done through easements.

"All the projects are in some sense working forests," says Rick Cooksey, who oversees the Forest Legacy Program for the U.S. Forest Service. "And every project –whether it's land belonging to a timber investment management association or a family-owned forest–submits a stewardship management plan." Such plans include forest management recommendations that are geared to the soil, water, recreation, timber, fish, wildlife, forest health, wetlands, and threatened and endangered species.

Each state tailors its program to its own individual needs, adds Kathy DeCoster, who tracks federal projects for TPL. "In New Jersey the program may be geared to preventing development and protecting drinking water. In Maine the goal may be to sustain the economic benefits of recreation and timber harvesting. In Utah it may be to preserve forested watersheds."

Using Forest Legacy funds, state matching funds, and other support, various partnerships are helping states and the Forest Service protect hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland across the nation. Under the Forest Legacy Program, more than 600,000 acres of forested properties have been protected through easements. TPL alone has recently completed or is working on forestry easements in Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Utah, Washington, and New Mexico.

Broad Support for Easements

The concept of working forest easements has been met with considerable enthusiasm, even in states where private landowners traditionally have been wary of, or even outright opposed to, publicly funded easement programs, says Brenda Brown, a TPL project manager who has worked on the forest-protection effort around St. Maries.

"Working forest easements are attractive to states like Idaho and Montana because they keep the land in private ownership, help maintain the regional timber economy, and protect important resource values such as water quality and wildlife habitat," Brown says.

In Idaho, Potlatch hopes to sell conservation easements on much of its 600,000 acres of timberland between Lake Coeur d'Alene, the St. Joe River, and the Clearwater River. This land supplies timber to Potlatch's own seven wood and paper product mills in central Idaho and also keeps a dozen smaller mills in operation.

Potlatch asked TPL to coordinate and build support for the complicated conservation transaction and helped protect the first 80,000 acres. The first phase of the project, now known as the Northern Idaho Forest Conservation Initiative, was completed in 2003 and protected 2,710 acres along the St. Joe River. Funding for this component came from private donations, a Potlatch donation, and the Forest Legacy Program. The Idaho Department of Lands will hold the easements acquired and will be responsible for monitoring and stewarding them.

By keeping out development and preventing fragmentation of the forest, the easements will enhance wildlife habitat, protect water quality, and make it easier and less costly to fight wildfires. Potlatch agreed, among other restrictions, not to clear-cut any areas visible from within the St. Joe River corridor scenic viewshed. Future negotiations on other parcels could generate additional conservation restrictions, such as expanded streamside buffer zones, where no logging would be allowed, and reduced cutting in areas of old growth, critical wildlife habitat, or rare species of plants.

"This is a great opportunity to protect jobs and conserve all the values associated with healthy forestlands," noted Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne when the first phase of the project was accomplished last year. "This is exactly the sort of win-win outcome we envisioned in establishing the Idaho Forest Legacy Program."

Senator Larry Craig, whose support was crucial in securing the Forest Legacy funding, agreed. "I have seen these working forest projects keep land in private, productive ownership while assuring the many public values, including access, are retained. I will continue to support this model program and secure funding to successfully implement this project."

Conservation groups also voiced support for the Northern Idaho Forest Conservation Initiative. "Wildlife, fisheries, habitat protection, and public recreation all benefit from this type of conservation approach on private lands," said Craig Gehrke of The Wilderness Society. Ken Retallic, of the Idaho Council of Trout Unlimited, cited benefits for fisheries. "The easements will provide phenomenal benefits to native fisheries, especially westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout populations," Retallic said. Other support came from the Idaho Conservation League and Idaho Rivers United.

"It's the greatest thing for the critters and the people who have played on timber company land for years," says lumberman and Idaho Fish and Game commissioner Alex Irby, adding that the easement projects are "the worst thing for urban sprawl and backwoods cabins. We in the industry understand the significance of a long-term strategy. It gives a good balance to the area."

Joe Empler, supervisor for a local logging company, put it this way: "I like to see timberland growing timber and not turning into urban sprawl. I think conservation easements are a win-win situation for all parties and the public."

Mark Matthews lives in Missoula, Montana, where he has written for the Washington Post, High Country News, Wildland Firefighter, and other publications. His opinion columns often are syndicated by Writers on the Range and appear in papers across the West.