The theme of this issue is time passing, and I want to open things by telling you about a big story that never happened.
In the late eighties, large chunks of forestland – the core of what makes the North Woods the North Woods – started getting put up for sale. The land had been owned by paper and timber companies for as long as anyone could remember; local economies were built around managing, harvesting, and processing the wood that grew there, and on the outdoors-minded people who recreated on the land.
But property values were rising, and the company bean counters realized that their $10/acre forestland was worth a lot more than they’d paid for it. Plus, a vertically integrated business model was becoming unnecessary in a global economy where pulp and timber could be purchased for less money than it cost to grow it. In many cases, it just stopped making economic sense to own forestland, and the corporations started looking for ways to cash out.
The first shoe dropped in 1988, when Diamond International put nearly a million acres of forestland on the market, and sure enough, a developer bought 100,000 of those acres and promptly tried to flip the land in what was dubbed “The Great North Country Land Auction,” promoted as “a unique opportunity for those looking to purchase part of a vanishing commodity – unspoiled rural wilderness within a reasonable commute to metropolitan areas.” Locals winced at the thought of locked gates and posted signs and the loss of independence and self-respect that comes when a forest economy is replaced by a seasonal tourist-based economy; conservationists cringed at the idea of these huge, unfragmented blocks of forest being crisscrossed by roads and dotted with vacation homes boasting Scotts Turf Builder® lawns. Understand that this land had been worked for generations but never settled. Its forest history stretched back to the last ice age.
Over the next 20 years, the land ownership structure of the Northern Forest did indeed crumble. After Diamond, millions of acres of timberland went on the market. In Maine alone, an area roughly the size of the state of New Hampshire was sold.
But what’s astounding is that, unless you were paying attention, you might not know this huge land transfer even happened. Anticipating what might come next, congress commissioned the Northern Forest Lands Study, which led to the establishment of a framework by which industry, environmentalists, local communities, and state and federal government could work together. (Google “Northern Forest Lands Council” to learn more.) Land trusts transitioned from brokering conservation easements on 100-acre lots to 100,000-acre parcels. Conservation groups used creative financing schemes and philanthropic capital to fund multi-million dollar land purchases. Timber investment management organizations and real estate investment trusts used the pooled resources of investors to purchase the lion’s share of the acreage, ensuring that it would remain working forestland. Instead of an era of unchecked development, the last two decades have been an era of conservation on a scale we’ve never seen.
To paraphrase writer Ted Williams, the whole thing serves as an example of what advocates of wildness can do when sufficiently frightened. And besides keeping the forest intact, the process set the stage for the progressive brand of environmentalism that you see featured in Northern Woodlands today. Virginia Barlow tells a funny story about dropping off one of our magazines at an environmental bookstore in the early 1990s, and being told later, in a reproachful tone, that the magazine had been removed because it was about cutting trees down and not saving them. (Yes, a book store.) Back then, the remnants of sixties-style culture wars still had tree hugging environmentalists at odds with timber beast loggers.
But northern New England, for the most part, isn’t like that today. There’s a shared sense of purpose between environmentalists and those in forest industry, and a lot more trust. People take it for granted that even industrial owners will consider water quality and wildlife in their harvest plans, and most recognize the importance of forest products and the roles that logging and wood manufacturing play in rural life. The magazine’s message of environmentalism without enemies was sort of punk rock and countercultural in 1994; today, at least around here, it’s pretty mainstream.
Of course, some things did change in the enormous land transfer. On page 46, Patrick Hackley takes a nostalgic look back at his days as a dirt forester on the former Champion Lands in northern Vermont; it’s a piece that’ll give you a firsthand look at the last days of that industrial parcel and a glimpse at how the landscape and culture are different there today. And, of course, things are still changing. We’ll continue to discuss – sometimes argue about – the fate of this former industrial forestland, because there’s still a lot at stake.
But 20 years on, it’s worth raising a glass to the fact that the sky never fell. We should reflect on the human part of this triumph – the hard work that a lot of people put into guiding the transfer – but also the business point that most of this land stayed intact because it stayed working, and it stayed working because the new owners could generate a return by selling timber. It’s in the absence of a healthy wood market that the next Great North County Land Auction will take place.