Conservation Fund protects 51,000 acres of timberland

The Three Rivers Forest in the northwestern Adirondacks was recently purchased by the Conservation Fund. (Provided photo — Carl Heilman II, Conservation Fund)

The Conservation Fund, which works to conserve working forests around the country, recently put more than 50,000 acres of Adirondack forests under protection so the land can continue to support local jobs and allow recreational access.

The nonprofit purchased about 33,000 acres and secured the rights to conserve another 18,000 in what’s being called the Three Rivers Forest. The forest complex is located in Franklin and St. Lawrence counties in the northwestern Adirondack Park.

Tom Duffus, who began his career in the Adirondacks and is now the Northeast vice president for the Conservation Fund, said preserving working forests is key to the North Country economy.

“What’s been happening — this happened in the Adirondacks, but it also happened nationwide — starting in the late ’80s through the ’90s, all the paper companies sold off their lands,” he explained. “Lands that everyone had relied on for open space, and hunting and fishing, and air and water quality all of a sudden became unstable.

“Those lands were all purchased by investors with a seven- to 12-year investment window. And as a result, properties have turned over three, sometimes four times in the very recent past. And because they’re in the business of a return on investment and not in the business of feeding a (lumber) mill, they look for maximum value. And often times, the lands get divided, and you get smaller and smaller units because you can sell the land for more.”

Duffus said when this happens, those parcels are no longer large enough to make timber harvesting worthwhile. He said the Conservation Fund created the Working Forest Fund to purchase the tracts whole, rather than in small parcels.

“This is one of America’s greatest environmental threats,” he said. “It relates to climate change, but it is a very expensive thing. We’re trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together. And that’s exactly what happened here because two years ago we purchased the Cranberry Tract, and that was actually part of the particular ownership that we just picked up. So we are literally putting it back together.”

A press release said the fund has taken “temporary ownership” of the 33,000 acres. Duffus explained that after several years of management — including ensuring public access for hunting, fishing and recreation — the fund will try and sell it whole again.

“We rescue these properties; we use temporary financing and capital to buy them, and to buy time to figure out the long-term working forest conservation solutions,” he said. “This is also about maintaining jobs and things like the hunting clubs and so forth.

“But our ownership is essentially to keep the lands producing wood (and) on the tax rolls while we figure out long-term conservation goals. And typically, that is a conservation easement that will go on the land, and then we will sell the lands once they’ve been conserved.

“So we’re going to be in this property for about five to eight years, maybe more, but we’ll sew it together with conservation.”

The fund also secured the right to purchase a conservation easement on another 18,000 acres, including a parcel the Conservation Fund previously owned.

“One of the parcels we actually owned at one point, and that’s the Raquette River Tract in Piercefield,” Duffus said. “And we donated an easement to the state and donated the river corridor to the state Forest Preserve. And that just happened to be part of the package, and when the seller put this on the market, they said it was all or nothing.

“So we didn’t want to own that again, so we found this other investor to own that and two other small tracts, and we own the right to buy easements. So we’re going to work that out as well.”

Duffus said the fund’s plan is to basically not change anything with the lands.

“The hunt clubs are going to stay there, wood is going to come off, jobs are going to be maintained, and the environmental protection that well-managed, sustainably managed working forests provide will be maintained,” he said.

“We are certified forest managers, so the very best forest management will continue on these properties.”

Duffus said that within the Blue Line, the Conservation Fund has three tracts it is working on, as well as tens of thousands of acres outside of the park in the Tug Hill and Taconic Ridge areas.