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Conservation failure of epic proportion

This morning (June 22) I read that 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.

The Conservation Fund will encumber the property with a working forest conservation easement and look to a private timber investment management organization to purchase the working lands from them so the Fund can go out and leverage another parcel in New York or elsewhere.

As Tom Duffus, the Northeast vice president for the Conservation Fund, explains, 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 oftentimes the lands get divided, and you get smaller and smaller units because you can sell the land for more.”

For over 100 years New York has been a leader in forest conservation, and the working forest easement model has proven significant in attracting billions of dollars in private-sector investment to accomplish that. Yet just 48 hours before this news, New York state adopted the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which makes this model of private working forest conservation impossible to continue. More importantly, the CLCPA puts at risk over 14 million acres of privately owned forest throughout New York by eliminating markets that private forest landowners depend on to keep their forests as forests. And with that, the ecosystem benefits of clean air, clean water and wildlife habitat. And local, good-paying jobs.

Wood product markets for paper, lumber and, yes, energy are what drive and sustain private investment in our forests. No one buys forest lands to pay taxes and watch trees soak up carbon. Without a return on investment, this investment in conservation will not happen.

Yet in one sweeping measure of so-called “leadership,” New York has potentially eliminated the economic driver for conservation at a landscape scale. By defining forest products as non-renewable (defying science) and prohibiting the use of biofuels in the solution to climate change (defying the International Panel on Climate Change), New York has become a leader in conservation failure of epic proportions.

Gov. Cuomo has taken credit for investing in forest conservation, just as his father did and governors between them have. Now he has before him the single piece of legislation which, if left as is, could put the proverbial nail in forest conservation. If this is not fixed, we will lose forest markets, we will see massive disinvestment in wood product manufacturing, and we will see an exodus of private-sector forest land investment.

How could New York expect to be a leader in climate change if we lead with the most disastrous land-based conservation policy? This policy has to change, and hopefully the CLCPA has the flexibility and our state policy makers have the insight and knowledge of both science and economics to make that change.

John K. Bartow Jr. is executive director of the Empire State Forest Products Association, based in Rensselaer.