September 11, 2017|By Bethany Olmstead
As you’ve already learned from reading our blog series, the Working Forest Fund (WFF) was created to address the economic and environmental challenges presented by the 45 million acres of working forestland in the U.S. that are currently at risk of being developed or degraded. The WFF’s model is to acquire large-scale at-risk forestlands, manage them sustainably for timber under third party certification, and ultimately secure an optimal conservation outcome.

9 11 wff graphicThis is the Working Forest Fund’s innovative management model, which keeps forests working and protected. 

As WFF’s Conservation Manager, my efforts involve the last phase of our model: that is, to focus on identifying and securing the optimal conservation outcome for the forestland properties that we have acquired and managed. The two main tools we use to secure conservation outcomes are: 1) a working forest conservation easement and 2) a conservation fee outsale. Approximately 75% of the more than 311,000 acres permanently conserved by WFF has been achieved through a working forest conservation easement. However both tools are often deployed together to achieve the greatest outcome in terms of both economic stability and conservation.

Through a working forest conservation easement (a legally binding document that protects the land permanently), the WFF sells a portion of its property rights to a conservation partner who is willing to receive these rights and ensure that the owner of the property adheres to the terms of the easement document. Often the entity that holds the easement is a local nonprofit organization with a mission to conserve land, but it can also be a government agency such as a state wildlife agency, state division of forestry or a state park. With our goal to keep working forests operational, WFF’s preferred tool is the working forest conservation easement as it maintains the land in private ownership as a working forest while providing multiple benefits, including:

  • Serves to maintain large, intact blocks of forestland;
  • Requires that all forest management activities be conducted in accordance with a forest management plan (which is updated at least every 10 years) that considers all the values of the forest and not just the value of the trees as a commodity; and
  • Limits the extent of forest management activities within sensitive areas in terms of protecting water quality and habitat for endangered and threatened species.

9 11 StCroixBrule Wisconsin ColdsnapPhotography 008In 2015, The Conservation Fund and our partners completed the largest land conservation effort in Wisconsin history. By securing a working forest conservation easement on 65,807 acres owned and managed by the Lyme Timber Company, the Brule-St. Croix Legacy Forest will remain vibrant and sustainably managed forest for generations to come. Photo by Coldsnap Photography.

Alternatively, we sometimes secure a property’s conservation outcome through a conservation fee “outsale.” An outsale means that WFF sells its entire interest in a property to a conservation partner to manage the land and to protect the myriad of conservation values that working forests provide, including wildlife habitat, water quality protection, and public access for outdoor recreation. In most of these cases, WFF uses conservation fee outsales to enable a conservation partner to acquire lands that are within or immediately adjacent to large properties already owned and managed by the conservation partner.

To further illustrate how WFF uses its preferred strategy to achieve creative, balanced solutions that work for the forests and the communities, let’s look at one WFF experience in Georgia. At more than 279,000 acres, Fort Stewart, located southwest of Savannah, is the largest Army installation east of the Mississippi River. The Army Compatible Use Buffer (ACUB) program, which includes funding from the Department of Defense’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) program, allows Fort Stewart and the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust to partner with agencies and non-governmental organizations to share the cost of acquiring conservation easements and fee simple purchases from willing landowners whose properties are located within designated ACUB priority areas outside of the installation boundary. 

9 11 FortStewart GeorgiaLandTrust Georgia ACBU008The pine and bottomland hardwood forests within these buffer areas surrounding Fort Stewart provide ideal habitat for a variety of birds, including orioles, tanagers, brown-headed nuthatch, Bachman’s sparrow, bobwhite quail, mourning dove, barn owl and great-horned owls. Photo by Georgia-Alabama Land Trust.

The acquisition of conservation easements and lands in fee within these ACUB priority areas buffers Fort Stewart from encroachment by ensuring that the lands remain in compatible use, safeguarding the installation’s training mission. To help the Army limit incompatible development in the vicinity of the Fort Stewart, WFF purchased more than 3,000 acres comprised of four distinct properties of nearby forestland that were within Fort Stewart’s ACUB priority areas and shared more than 2.5 miles of the installation’s border. Once the land was owned by WFF, the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust purchased conservation easements on all four of these tracts, using funding from the REPI program, and is now responsible for monitoring the conservation easement to ensure that the terms are being upheld. Once permanently conserved, WFF sold the parcels subject to the conservation easement on the private market. 

9 11 ACUB graphic
The four tracts purchased by WFF are shown here in red.

Ultimately, three of the parcels were acquired by private parties who will manage the land for outdoor recreation, hunting, and timber production. The fourth parcel, known as the Durham Banks Tract, was sold to McIntosh SEED, a nonprofit working to create and sustain healthy and diverse rural communities across the Southeast. Under McIntosh SEED’s ownership, the land was established as one of the first community forests in the country acquired for the purpose of empowering underserved communities to make decisions about the management of forests to improve both conservation and financial success.

9 11 McSEED Georgia Steve Orr 128McIntosh SEED Community Forest. Photo by Steve Orr.

With the sale to McIntosh SEED marking the completion of the WFF model for these 3,000 acres in Georgia, our initial investment in the Fort Stewart transaction was re-deployed towards the acquisition of the 8,742-acre Success Pond Forest in New Hampshire. Today, the WFF is working with the State of New Hampshire’s Division of Forests and Lands and the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program to complete a working forest conservation easement that will permanently conserve this New Hampshire forest as a working forest.

That’s how the WFF model ensures that our country’s working forests keep working, and the funds that support them remain at work as well.

Make sure to read all of the posts in our Working Forest Fund blog series:

Part I: Why We Need the Working Forest Fund by Brian Dangler

Part II: How the Working Forest Fund Identifies and Protects Working Forests by Buck Vaughan

Part III: Forest Management 101 by David Whitehouse

Part IV: Economic Benefits of the Working Forest Fund by Kevin Harnish