May 8, 2017|By Brian Dangler

The year was 1991, and I was joining the extended Shelmidine family on a deer hunt. Our family friends, the Shelmidines, were dairy farmers who lived on the edge of the big woods of the Tug Hill region of upstate New York, near where I grew up. We left the farm after morning chores, and headed out into the northern hardwood forest dotted with wetlands and streams. We were hunting on a tiny portion of a massive land ownership—1.2 million acres of wild lands—mostly owned by private timber companies. For decades, they provided raw material for the working mills as well as traditional recreation opportunities for the community. 

After wading through a stony stretch of river, we each went our own way, agreeing to meet back at that spot at dark. I had an enjoyable day in the hardwood forest, sneaking along silently in the fresh snow. As the sun crept down I approached the river and my gut knotted up. This river was much deeper and flowing in the opposite direction… it was the wrong one! 

By that time in my life I had been a field forester for two years in the big woods of Maine and considered myself an experienced woodsman. Now completely lost, I knew it was unwise to go any farther with darkness setting in and the temperature below freezing. I fired three shots from my 30-06 rifle: the universal signal for "come get me." Before long, my buddy John Mueller—who also happened to be the forester for the lumber company that owned this 28,000-acre block—came to my aid. Through the flashlight's halo I could see the smirk on his face as he said, “Okay, forester from the big Maine woods, follow me.”

5 8 Redfield Kendall Property Working Forest Fund NY Carl Heilman 10Scenic forestland in the Tug Hill plateau. Photo by Carl Heilman.

Fast forward to 2011 when the lumber and furniture industry had fallen on hard times. The Harden Furniture company put 11,000 acres of landholdings—located adjacent to where I got lost in the woods hunting that day—up for auction to the highest bidder. The sale of Harden Furniture’s land was potentially a sad end to an era of stable forest ownership in the region, with significant economic implications for the local communities.

The Conservation Fund’s response to the loss of America’s last big, intact, privately-held forests is our Working Forest Fund (WFF). Pioneered in 1998 to address this urgent conservation challenge, the WFF acquires and permanently protects ecologically significant forestland, applying expert management and restoration. Our goal is to ensure forests' vital role in providing clean air and water, wildlife habitat, and economic benefits for communities across America. 

WFF has built a team of professional foresters, wildlife managers, and conservation experts. So far, we have invested in 33 forests in 15 states and have permanently protected more than 485,000 acres—including 3,236 acres of Harden Furniture’s land in the Tug Hill plateau.  

Through WFF, we were able to purchase the largest block—known as the Kendall tract—before it was sold to a developer, and we held it until February 2017 when it was incorporated into the NY State Forest system. Now this land will be permanently managed sustainably for the production of forest products, and logs harvested from this forest are very likely to be sold to the land’s former owner, Harden Furniture. "Protecting large, intact working forests, like the Kendall tract, is vital for the continuation of forest products manufacturing facilities and the communities that depend on them," said Greg Harden, CEO of Harden Furniture.

5 8 Redfield Kendall Property Working Forest Fund NY Carl Heilman 5Conserving the 3,236-acre Kendall property will help to stem the tide of rural land division, which typically costs towns more money in services than they receive in property taxes. Photo by Carl Heilman.

The sale of the Kendall tract is not an isolated example, as nearly 45 million acres of our nation’s working forests are currently at risk of being lost to development. Beginning in the late 1980s, America’s privately owned timberlands, which had been held and generally well managed primarily by manufacturers as a steady supply of raw material, started to unravel. Why? Long-held, large forestlands became a liability amid pressures for increasing demand for liquidity and quarterly dividends. In response, companies sold off huge swaths of forests to the highest bidders. The buyers represented a new class of investors; insurance and pension funds, as well as university endowments. They were represented by asset managers with a fiduciary obligation to maximize financial returns. Timberland became a new “asset class” to be traded for the highest dollar.

5 8 maine graphicThe trend of traditional industrial ownership (red) shifting dramatically to alternative owners (blue) in a relatively short time period is well illustrated in this graphic of the state of Maine.

Now, instead of managing forests for the long run, they began to be managed for their highest short-term return value, typically 7-10 years. As land is sold for its “highest and best use” it is often broken down into smaller and smaller pieces. That has ripple effects on the forest products industries and thus, the local economies suffer and local governments’ budgets become stressed. Timber mills begin to shut down; logging and road construction jobs trickle away. We’ve seen similar declines in forest-dependent local economies all across the country. 

This “parcelization” has another very critical effect on the ecological attributes of large-scale forestlands nationwide. What we often take for granted—like clean water, clean air, recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat—are made possible by large, intact systems. As these complex natural systems are severed, the natural services on which we depend are diminished or eradicated, which is a loss for everyone.

5 8 Reed Forest Maine c Jerry Monkman20160920 5 1The Conservation Fund is protecting hundreds of thousands of forested acres in Maine, including Reed Forest pictured here. Photo by Jerry Monkman.

WFF is the only fund of its kind. It buys more than just land; it buys time. We offer a dedicated source of bridge capital, and for each property we place conservation safeguards, prohibit land use change and subdivision, and keep the woods available for sustainable forest production. We then return the forestland to private ownership or public agency stewardship, so that each property remains a protected working forest able to boost its local economy by maintaining jobs. Our biggest need is for more funding to acquire more land and to conserve the properties we buy, so that WFF can continue its success.

5 8 WFF infographicThis graphic depicts the need for the WFF and how its cyclical model keeps forests working and protected.

This is the first in a series of five posts all about the Working Forest Fund. Make sure to check back next month to find out more about how we identify properties for WFF and the dual economic and environmental value of working forests.

Watch this video to find out more how protection of the Kendall Forest ensures ongoing timber resource production, safeguards water quality of the environmentally sensitive and economically important Salmon River and allows for continued public access to recreational opportunities, such as hunting and snowmobiling.

“The whole forest economy has shifted and it’s still uncertain how that’s going to play out, but you still have places like Harden Furniture that are staying strong and trying to continue to invest in the community and keep the jobs local, which I think is a great thing.” - Katie Malinowski, Executive Director of the Tug Hill Commission

Read more about Harden Furniture in this article from Huffington Post:
Furniture Made In America: Highlighting Harden Furniture In McConnellsville, New York

5 8 Paul SIn memory of Paul Shelmidine, who continued deer hunting every year until his death in 2016 at age 93.