June 5, 2017|By Buck Vaughan

I was looking for an internship during graduate school when I noticed a position announcement with The Conservation Fund. The announcement described the Fund’s unique dual charter of pursuing environmental conservation as well as compatible economic development. 

As the son of a farmer, I was immediately drawn to the Fund since my childhood embodied this mission. I learned from my father the importance of land stewardship and incorporating practices that protect the clean water in the streams and creeks on our farm, provide quality habitat for wildlife, and produce crops that provide food and clothing.

6 5 Cousins on the farmMy nieces and nephews are growing up around my family farm, just as I did. Photo by Buck Vaughan.

Taking an advanced linear programming course during my undergraduate study in forest management reinforced the importance of this concept. As it turned out, I was the only student signed up for the course, and my professor Dr. Joseph Roise was transformative. Learning to model forests tied together biology, ecology, math and economics—all of the subjects that intrigued me the most. 

Following graduation Dr. Roise hired me to work on the Daniel Boone National Forest, fulfilling a contract to conduct analysis for a revision of the management plan for the forest. I moved to Winchester, Kentucky to work in the forest supervisor’s office. Every week the office hosted public stakeholder meetings to give community members an opportunity to provide input for the forest management plan. Unfortunately, the attendees of these meetings had polarized views of how to manage the forest. On one side, environmentalists lobbied against any timber harvesting on the forest, while on the other side loggers pushed for a major expansion of timber harvesting. In truth, a management plan that provides for a perpetually sustainable flow of timber from the forest while protecting environmentally sensitive areas provides the greatest benefit to the community. This pragmatic approach that balances the desires of those seated on opposite sides of the table perfectly encapsulates the Fund’s dual charter.

This approach is also how the Working Forest Fund (WFF) identifies potential forest conservation acquisitions. As a partnership-driven organization, our conservation priorities are the priorities of our federal, state and local partners. These public agencies and their highly dedicated professionals are exceptionally well-equipped to identify the conservation priorities in their geography that will provide the greatest public utility through conservation acquisition. Our field staff has worked to develop close relationships with the agencies in their geography and work to stay constantly apprised of their priorities. This enables us to quickly react when there is an opportunity to secure permanent protection of these priorities. 

Working with our partners to identify conservation priorities is a crucial first step, but there are many hurdles to successful conservation. The WFF was created as a vehicle to protect large tracts of working forest in instances where conservation funding is not immediately available. For our model to work, there must be a viable forest resource that can be managed to cover the costs of these large financial investments—either through sustainable harvest revenue or the asset appreciation created by the biological growth of the forest. Whenever considering an acquisition, our team assesses the current state of the forest, and utilizing the best available science, we project forest growth and succession over time. Using the skills I learned with Dr. Roise, I model the forest and develop a management plan that ensures our operations will provide perpetually sustainable timber volumes, and achieve the objectives of our partners. We work with local forestry consultants to understand the current market for forest products in the region surrounding the property, and how those markets are likely to change in the future. This information is used to create a business model that informs the financial feasibility of each acquisition.

6 5 Anatomy of a Deal
The most difficult piece of the puzzle is securing the funding needed to ensure permanent conservation through acquisition by a partnering agency or through a working forest conservation easement. Our field and development staff do some heavy lifting to secure private funding to leverage public agency funding.

A prime example is reflected in the expansive watershed property in Georgia known as Sansavilla. The property—a high priority for conservation—was being sold at auction. With nearly 20,000 acres of forestland, Sansavilla was a wildlife management area (WMA) for decades providing recreational access to the Altamaha River. As one of the largest financial investments for WFF to date, finding the funding necessary to conserve Sansavilla was a huge task. To acquire the property, WFF leveraged a large loan from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority with private philanthropic dollars. Our ability to accurately project future timber harvest revenues was crucial to ensuring that our forest management could support the large debt incurred to acquire the forest. 

6 5 Sansaville Georgia StacyFunderburke002The Sansavilla property contains a mix of bottomland hardwood and pine forests. Photo by Stacy Funderburke.

Jason Lee, the Program Manager for Coastal Nongame Conservation section of the Georgia DNR had this to say about our work together: “It has been both rewarding and educational working with The Conservation Fund. Their model of land conservation is very compatible with Georgia DNR’s effort to protect Georgia’s wildlife through conservation of important habitat. The permanent protection of Sansavilla’s 20,000 acres is a complex, difficult, risky endeavor that requires flexibility, a high level of trust, talent and passion for all involved. the Fund has once again proven themselves to be essential to large land conservation projects in Georgia.

6 5 Sansaville Georgia StacyFunderburkeEvan Smith, Vice President of Conservation Ventures, at Sansavilla WMA. Photo by Stacy Funderburke.

To ensure long-term protection of Sansavilla, WFF will sell a conservation easement that prohibits development and subdivision of the property and the Georgia DNR will acquire the property subject to the conservation easement. WFF has also proposed retaining a timber deed on portions of the property that are currently managed as loblolly pine plantations. If reserved, these areas could be harvested over time; utilizing the timber harvest revenue to offset the cost of permanently conserving the property. This creative structure will lower the cost of permanent conservation by millions. In addition, WFF worked with the Georgia DNR to create a forest management plan that identifies priority areas for longleaf restoration. By restoring nearly 2,000 acres of native longleaf pine and permanently protecting crucial habitat for the threatened gopher tortoise and indigo snake, the WFF has provided current and future generations the opportunity to experience a truly special place.

Thanks for reading the second installment in our Working Forest Fund blog series. If you missed the first post by Brian Dangler make sure to go back and check it out. Also, come back next month when we will hear more from David Whitehouse about how we devise each forest management plan.