With the majority of U.S. forestlands under private ownership, a new program aims to transform landowners into conservationists.
Mike Schmalzer and Roger Unangst are walking through the woods in the Poconos of northeastern Pennsylvania when they come across the duck. Both are members of the Hiawatha Hunting and Fishing Club, whose 1,305-acre property stretches north-south near the Delaware Water Gap and New Jersey.
The downy carcass lies in the leaves next to a fallen red oak. Normally the sight of abandoned game would suggest poaching, but Unangst smiles wryly instead.
“Domesticated duck,” he says.
“Muscovy,” Schmalzer adds.
The bird was probably a pet that had escaped, most likely from one of the neighborhoods that border the club’s western property line. Thirty years ago, when Schmalzer and Unangst joined the club, the adjoining acres were intact woodlands like this, laced with streams and dotted with ponds.
“The houses came in when gas prices were low,” Schmalzer says, as he continues into the forest. “Everybody migrated out from New Jersey and New York City.” When gas prices rose again, many of the homes went into foreclosure. Some became rentals; others were abandoned altogether.
A lot has changed in these forests since the club was founded more than a century ago, but recently the pace has picked up significantly—and not for the better. In addition to nearby development, there are gypsy moths munching on the oaks and aphids ravaging the hemlocks. Ten-foot fences around the neighboring state forest help keep deer out, allowing the vegetation to regenerate, but they also deter animals from entering the club’s land.
As recruitment slowed, club members feared for their property’s future. To raise money, the club started allowing some timber operations on its property in the 1940s. Members have not been happy with the results. Would they have to allow more operations, or even start selling acreage, to stay afloat?
In 2016 the group found a solution. As the first hunting and fishing club to enroll in The Nature Conservancy’s Working Woodlands program, the Hiawatha Club grants TNC a working-forest conservation easement that prevents future development and promotes sustainable forestry practices. The club will eventually receive revenue from limited sustainable timber harvesting and the sale of carbon credits. The forest will be managed under a plan certified under the Forest Stewardship Council, which ensures that the forest stays healthy for future generations.
More than 70 percent of Pennsylvania’s 17 million acres of forest are privately owned, representing a portion of the Appalachian range critical to the region’s biodiversity. To date, the Working Woodlands program has enrolled more than 56,000 acres of forests in Pennsylvania and four other states, with more on the way. A wide variety of landowners have already signed on, from families to government agencies. But they all share the same goal as this hunting club: keeping the forests healthy and productive.
“That’s why we’re preserving it,” Schmalzer says, as leaves crunched underfoot. “We don’t want it turned into houses and ski lodges.”
More than half of America’s 750 million acres of forests are privately owned. With individual trees selling for hundreds or even thousands of dollars, landowners in Pennsylvania and elsewhere are tempted to harvest their timber. And few landowners have the money to create and implement resource management plans, without which timber harvesting can leave forests vulnerable to erosion, pests and disease.
Josh Parrish, director of TNC’s Working Woodlands Program, knew this firsthand. Growing up in south-central Pennsylvania’s rural Perry County, northwest of Harrisburg, he’d developed his love of nature as a child, playing and exploring in the woods. He came to understand that woods were important for people; at 14, he began cutting trees on his family’s woodlot and building furniture from the timber. Today, Parrish and his wife own 211 acres of Pennsylvania forest. They harvest low-quality oak logs to grow shiitake mushrooms, based on a sustainable management plan.
Programs like Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification help ensure that wood is cut under sustainable forestry practices, which reduce impact and conserve biodiversity, and allow sellers to earn more by giving access to preferred markets and carbon exchanges. Parrish knew that many private forest owners forgo certification because of the added costs and time commitments. For properties larger than 1,500 acres, it can cost upward of $20,000 to create a management plan and conduct the required audit. So around 2007, he and fellow conservators came up with a plan in which TNC could do it for free.
The problem is that a few centuries of logging in the eastern United States have reduced diversity on millions of acres. That’s because common logging practices reset all generations of trees on a given plot to age zero—while tending to leave weaker trees untouched. So a few decades later, the canopy on that site will likely be dominated by whatever tree species grows the fastest. On the other hand, a diverse forest supports more species of animals, better resists the effects of invasive species and climate change, and even absorbs more carbon dioxide.
The Working Woodlands program, Parrish thought, could help develop management plans for landowners who would agree to put their properties into decades-long conservation easements. The easements protect the forest from development or unsustainable logging. Meanwhile, TNC helps the owners maintain a healthier, more diverse forest that still turns a profit through lower-intensity selective timber cutting and carbon credits.
With the nuts and bolts of Working Woodlands laid out, all Parrish needed was a potential landowner to pitch; ideally an entity with lots of acreage, good forest stock to work with and a strong desire to preserve it. He had one in mind—one that TNC had been trying to get an easement with for more than 30 years.
Filtering water and preventing erosion are just two of the many ecosystem benefits that forests provide. And they’re at the top of the list for government agencies tasked with supplying drinking water, such as the Bethlehem Authority. It is the source of water for 116,000 residents of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and 11 surrounding municipalities, thanks in part to 22,388 acres of forest that surround Long Pond and Wild Creek Reservoir, where the city draws its supply.
In 2009, the water authority’s forest-management plan was more than two decades old and needed a major update. So the agency was receptive when TNC proposed the Working Woodlands idea. The authority would get a new management plan that would be FSC-certified and comply with the latest best practices. In exchange, it would grant TNC a 60-year easement on the forest. A year and a half of negotiations resulted in the largest private conservation agreement in Pennsylvania’s history.
“It was a learning experience for everybody,” says Stephen Repasch, director of the water authority. “But it’s been a real good experience.”
The new management plan would have clinched the deal by itself, Repasch says. But what made the deal even better was the chance to earn money on the global carbon market. Recent studies have shown that some forests can be managed to absorb more carbon than unmanaged forests, and the easement ensures the property will be maintained to meet high sustainability standards. So Working Woodlands properties are eligible to sell credits on the carbon market through TNC.
Since the water authority agreement was signed, Chevrolet Motors and the Walt Disney Company have signed up to buy credits. The water authority has sold carbon credits annually since 2012, with annual sales often exceeding $200,000. Any logging will be done in accordance with the forest-management plan, which calls for very selective cutting, aimed at reducing overgrown species and improving biodiversity.
And the FSC certification may add to the value of individual trees. Demand for sustainably harvested materials is rising, which is why Domtar Paper Mills helped fund the Working Woodlands program early on.
The Bethlehem Water Authority deal turned out to be just the beginning. Within months of its signing, Parrish began talking with other landowners with forest holdings larger than 1,000 acres—the minimum to become part of the program. The list included the Hiawatha Club, another water authority and even private families.
Rebecca Shafer Tuuk and her husband, Roger, own about 3,120 acres of mixed hardwood forest in White County, Tennessee. The property is mostly yellow poplar and oaks, with a large stream-fed waterfall and more than 30 miles of caves underground. Rebecca’s father, John Shafer Jr., originally bought the land in the 1940s for the family lumber business. Some of it had been cut.
“My father was a scientist,” she says. “He was always interested in new things, always asking foresters about carbon.” John Jr. split the property into several separate tracts to ensure that not too much would be harvested at any one time, keeping it healthy. He was still concerned about its welfare at age 104 in 2015, when Parrish came to talk to the Tuuks about Working Woodlands. “We talked with my dad about it, and he was very excited,” Tuuk says.
The timing couldn’t have been better, says Trisha Johnson, director of forest conservation for TNC’s Tennessee chapter. “We were looking for a new approach to engaging with private landowners, and the Working Woodlands program provided the innovation that we needed.”
Just over half of the state is covered with forest, and 83 percent of that, roughly 11.6 million acres, is privately owned. “Tennessee is at the base of a connectivity corridor that spans the eastern half of the U.S.,” Johnson says. “These are the primary corridors for migration in the face of a changing climate.”
In 2016 the Tuuks became the first in Tennessee to enroll in the program, granting TNC an easement in perpetuity that prevents development, agricultural conversion or unsustainable forestry practices.
“We’re happy to have our timber forest FSC certified,” Rebecca Tuuk says. “It’s exciting to get paid and not even have to cut trees.” Her father died a month before the easement deal was signed, she says—but he would have been proud. The Tuuks expect carbon payments to start at the
end of this summer.
The Conservancy is now working to enroll other landowners across the state in the program, Johnson says. “The program is a win for the landowner and for TNC.”
Once a forest owner signs on with a Working Woodlands management plan, the meticulous process of inventorying begins, to assess the forest’s carbon content and estimate future growth.
On the first morning of the Hiawatha Club’s inventory in April 2017, the lodge feels like a war room. Schmalzer, Unangst, and other club members hover over a circular table, studying a map of the property and sipping coffee. Mike Eckley, a TNC forester, explains the basics of how an inventory is taken. At some point, independent carbon auditors will visit Hiawatha and check the work. If anything seems off, they’ll look even closer, like the IRS, so at this stage it’s better to err on the side of overkill. “Too much information is better than too little,” Eckley says.
Twelve people from TNC and Hiawatha head into the field beneath gray skies. They measure and document trees for hours. Even dead, fallen and sick trees are accounted for. The hunt club members don’t have to do any of this—it’s TNC’s job to conduct the inventory—but they want to know what is going on with their property.
The management plan for the Hiawatha Club forest includes controlling undesirable competing plants, including trees, shrubs and vines. That allows species like oak, hickory, cherry and poplar to establish and grow. This will improve habitat for species including wild turkey, ruffed grouse and black bear. It will allow canopy trees to grow faster and store more carbon. The plan also includes selectively controlling invasive plants like Japanese barberry, monitoring for forest pests like hemlock woolly adelgids and even upgrading hiking trails.
If the Working Woodlands program works as it should, it will improve the condition of the forest by promoting the healthiest and most diverse range of tree species possible. It will also help ensure the Hiawatha Club is around for another century to manage and enjoy it.