Boom in Forests Is Turning to Bust

Landowners get more money selling parcels to developers than selling timber from whole tract. NORTHEAST: CONSERVATION

`BEAUTIFULLY wooded riverfront parcel ... ,'' ``Well-wooded hilltop paradise. ...'' Such beckoning real estate ads, easy to find in any New England newspaper these days, underscore the importance of two very different trends at work in the region.

One is the marked resurgence of forests over the last several decades on land once cleared for farming. New England now has far more forest than it did at the turn of the century.

The newer trend - an ominous one in the view of many public officials and environmentalists - relates directly to the predominantly private ownership of these large forested tracts and to rising competition in the timber industry. Landowners find they can earn more by selling their land to eager developers, who often subdivide it for further sale, than by selling the timber on it.

``If you take some of those beautiful mountains of New England and run subdivisions in them, it can change the region's whole landscape and character,'' observes Chris Holmes, a spokesman for the United States Forest Service.

Congress, concerned about both the breakup of land into smaller parcels and its impact on US timber production, asked the Forest Service two years ago to look at the extent of the problem in the Northeast. That study is slated for release today.

A companion report from the Governors' Task Force on Northern Forest Lands, a group of 12 experts appointed by the chief executives of New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and New York, will recommend specific state and federal action.

Forests overtake pastures

Much of the growth in Northeastern forest has occurred naturally over a period of many years. Discouraged by low crop prices and competitive handicaps - such as the difficulty of plowing steep and rocky slopes by tractor - many farmers simply let their land go. The brush that grew up was eventually overtaken by stands of trees. Both Vermont and New Hampshire, which had three times as much farmland as forest a century ago, now have three times more land in forests than in farms.

That pasture-to-forest pattern was further reinforced by the Conservation Reserve Program in the 1985 federal farm bill. Farmers were encouraged through subsidies to either idle their most erosion-prone land or to plant trees or native grasses on it. ``It gave farmers incentive to take cropland they weren't really making any money on anyway and put it back into trees,'' says Richard Maas, director of the Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

Yet the market for property in densely populated New England is now such that even less scenic land, once written off as unmarketable, is selling well. The Northern Forest Lands Study notes that 30 million people live within a day's drive of the Northeast. ``Developers are buying anything - farm or forest - because it's all relatively nice,'' says study director Stephen Harper.

The decision two years ago by Diamond Occidental Forest Inc. to sell close to 1 million acres of Northeast forest, one-fifth of it to developers, spurred much of the current concern. New York State was able to buy back from one of the developers some 55,000 acres in Adirondack Park, much of which is privately owned. In a report earlier this month, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st Century urged more state purchases of park woodlands and strict curbs on future development.

Yet solutions to the general problems raised by the sale of private forests are not easy to come by. States can slow - not stop - development through zoning rules. Most states have some kind of forest planning process in place, but it tends to be advisory, says Howard Burnett, special projects forester with the American Forestry Association, a citizen group. Decisions about the sale and use of land are widely seen in a free-market economy as an issue of owner rights. Also, many state officials say more public purchases are neither politically nor economically feasible.

``We're going to have to find new ways of conservation that include both public and private land and that don't necessarily involve buying it up,'' says Mollie Beattie, deputy secretary of Vermont's Department of Natural Resources and a member of the northern lands gubernatorial task force. She says national interest in the Northeast's problem is strong and that the task force has received more letters from Californians than from Vermonters. Congress could help, she says, by designating some private forest as working preserves in which natural resources would be targeted specifically for maintenance and management.

Conservation ethic needed

Education is viewed as key. Owners of forest often hold it for many reasons, including aesthetic value. ``One of the challenges is to help them develop a conservation ethic,'' says William Meutz, chairman of the University of New Hampshire's Forest Resources Department.

Owners should understand they can choose the development they want for their property. The result, says Vermont's Beattie, may not net them maximum cash, but it can preserve many of the things they most appreciate about their land.

States can help shape such decisions through tax benefits or subsidies. In exchange, owners may accept land-use controls such as turning over future development rights on their property.

Reforestation on private and public land is also a problem. Most states do not have active forest-practice laws that require replanting of logged areas, says Justin Ward, a forest policy specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Even where required to replant, forest managers' efforts often succeed only partly or not at all, says Stephen Anderson, a Seattle representative of the Wilderness Society.

``We need to begin developing a rational forest policy for the nation as a whole,'' observes Mr. Ward. ``We should be looking to private lands to provide more and more of our wood needs, as public forest land is increasingly in demand for other uses.''

Meanwhile, the stepped-up emphasis on urban tree planting by the White House and by such groups as the American Forestry Association in its Global ReLeaf Program are expected to help increase America's tree stocks. The 1990 farm bill, up for consideration by Congress this summer, also aims at better protection of existing forests through an expanded federal aid program.

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