Blazing a Forest Trail Of Profitable Coexistence

Timber company opens private land to outdoor enthusiasts

Timber harvesters, environmentalists, and backcountry sportsmen traditionally are supposed to be at loggerheads over how to use a forest. But now a backcountry recreation developer and International Paper Company (IPC) have formed a novel three-year experiment in what they hope will be profitable coexistence.

In a remote 18-by-5-mile valley in far northern New Hampshire, IPC has cut high-mountain hardwoods for veneer and low-elevation softwoods for paper for 100 years. But now people are also being courted to come play: cross-country and backcountry skiers, snow-shoers, hikers, mountain bikers, canoeists, fishers, hunters, even dog-sledders.

These visitors may see some swaths of clear-cuts and hear the roar of chain saws. But they will also find 3,500-foot peaks and corresponding vistas; ponds and brooks; 55 miles of logging roads and trails; ungroomed glades for telemark skiing; and plentiful flora and fauna - moose, bear, beaver, deer, coyote, loon, and rainbow trout.

The new Phillips Brook Backcountry Recreation Area is definitely out there. No motorized sport is allowed. But people can hike, bike, or ski hut to hut and to a rustic lodge on Phillips Pond, nine miles from the trail head.

Lodging is relatively low cost, and trail use and parking are free. Overnight at the lodge is $45 per person, $26 in a hut, or yurt ($125 for the entire yurt) - a 20-foot diameter, wood-stove-heated canvas tent on a wooden frame that sleeps six. There's also a fire tower with stunning views.

Drawing large numbers

Campers provide their own gear. As in much of the Northeast, these private timberlands have been historically open to casual recreational use. In recent years IPC had leased 5,000 acres and its lodge to a private hunting club. "But something that would bring in large numbers of people for hiking, mountain biking, skiing - we've never had that," says IPC woods manager Duane Nadeau.

Concerned about liability, public scrutiny, and criticism of timber-cutting practices, the industry has been wary of mixing recreation with logging. Bill Altenburg, a former landscape architect and one-time ski area planner, says he spent several years trying to get a long-term lease for his company, Mountain Recreation Inc. of Conway, N.H. Finally, IPC agreed to just a three-year pilot project in joint use of 24,000 acres.

Among reasons cited for timberland holders' new interest in additional sources of revenue: low return on timber assets, higher levels of debt, the need for greater cash flow, and increasingly distant owners (sometimes as a result of leveraged buyouts).

Says Mr. Altenburg: "We think we can make money by helping people get low-cost recreation and keeping the forest profitable to own."

Public-land recreational opportunities remain either stagnant or even reduced, he adds, as government budgets shrink while demand increases.

Altenburg empathizes with timber-company concerns over recreational easements. He talks about "the shadow effect ... the pall over the ownership of land" a recreational trail can cast. He calls the Appalachian Trail, which crisscrosses private lands from Georgia to Maine, "a classic example of a corridor becoming a national park."

But Joe Michaels, US Forest Service liaison with state and private forestry in New Hampshire, calls this experiment "a win-win situation. Users will have new terrain to explore, and owners can protect their concerns and preserve their land."

Other landowners

Altenburg hopes to see 5,000 winter visits at Phillips Brook by the year 2000, many of them newcomers to backcountry. That may not be easy, however, since it's a five-hour drive from Boston. But he also has approached land holders in Montana, Washington, and Idaho, "who are committed to their lands," but much "closer to major markets" than the roof of New Hampshire.

He likes to cite as a model the privately endowed hut-to-hut skiing on Colorado's 10th Mountain Trail (although that's on national forest land).

A forest full of fledglings, however, may be in need of a ski patrol. Two unsuccessful hunters were departing disappointed this fall when they finally saw their moose. Leaping out of their truck to shoot it, they forgot to set the brake. Altenburg has a photo of a moose tied carefully across the top of a rescuing tow truck.

Still, David Publicover, an Appalachian Mountain Club forest ecologist, cautiously welcomes "anything that might expand [public] use and take pressure off public lands."

He calls Phillips Brook "an interesting experiment" that will attract a new constituency. But he wonders how the public will react to hearing chain saws in a working forest. And if "the main pressure would be to derive more income from the land, that makes me nervous," he adds. "People will be watching."

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