Outdoor World

The McMansionization Of America’s Forests Is Hurting Rural People

BERLIN, N.Y. — You can’t retain Tony Gale out of the woods.

Six years ago, he was sitting on the hood of a skidder — a heavy-duty tractor loggers use to move felled trees — when a coworker started the machine. Before Gale could move, the blade rose and crushed every bone in both his feet and ankles. The sorenes was blinding. Doctors told him he’d never work in the woods again. But sure enough, the lumberman was back on the job two years later, chainsawing towering pines and oaks in the woodlands of upstate New York, where he’s lived his whole life.

Gale typically runs solo now, but he’s still unstoppable. Four months ago, his grapple skidder, a beast of a truck built to pick up logs in big pincers, was incinerated in a flame started by an electrical trigger; he suspects mice were the culprits, gnawing through the wires. The skimpy insurance check didn’t replace the machine outright, but the lumbers were calling, and Gale needed to work. So he bought a smaller cable skidder. He recently arrived at a job website to find child pacifiers fixed to the machine’s grill, a jab from one his woodcutter buddies running nearby.

Gale has tried to work as a welder. He’s a good carpenter, too. But he can’t cease logging.

” Us guys, we bust our butts. It’s dangerous work doing what we do ,” Gale, 47, told HuffPost, leaning against the bed of his silver Toyota Tacoma pickup on a muggy July morning.” But I desire it out here. There’s nothing like it .”

But the terrain for logging is fast disappearing, and with it the jobs. The number of loggers has diminished dramatically over the past 20 years, inducing Gale one of fewer than a dozen working in the area of the Rensselaer Plateau now, he said. The milling corporations that once owned huge swaths of forest across the Northeast are run, leaving the wooded tracts largely in the hands of investor groups and private-equity funds. The local economy embraced tourism, and well-heeled visitors from the city — attracted to the bucolic appeal — wanted what Gale called ” their own little slice of heaven .” Eager to turn a profit, potential investors have been divvying up the ground and selling it to developers constructing massive summer homes in the middle of what was once dense wood.

The transformation may seem invisible from the farm-lined nation roads that slither out from Albany. But you can see it from above. Glades pockmark the lush, green canopy, building route for McMansions. On a helicopter flight last month, HuffPost counted almost a dozen new homes under building.

” Now, you go by what used to be a beautiful piece of property and there are mansions all over the place ,” Gale said.

Google Earth Satellite images from 1984 to 2014 display the rapid graying of the Rensselaer Plateau as growth moves eastward from Albany.

One nonprofit is trying to halt the process by saving groves that form the backbone of rural economies and play a crucial role in combatting climate change. On Tuesday, the Conservation Fund, a national environmental and economic development proponent based in northern Virginia, closed a approximately $25 million bargain to buy 23, 053 acres of foreststraddling the borders of New York, Massachusetts and Vermont.

The Conservation Fund has saved virtually 500,000 acres of privately owned forested ground over the last 20 times, through a process known as preservation easement. The fund agrees to buy the ground from investors, then adds rules to the deeds omitting growth. The new terms permit activities like recreation and sustainable logging, where foresters select specific trees to fell and lumbermen like Gale carefully cut them and drag them out. The Conservation Fund then sells the land to new owners, who agree to maintain the easement’s terms of use, and uses proceeds of the sales to create easements in other parts of the country.

The Conservation Fund’s latest acquisition, known as the Cowee forest, once made most of the the small forked stakes used to hold notecards in flower arrangements for the world. For almost a century, the Cowee family bought up tracts of the wood, which furnished a steady stock of lumber for their mill in Berlin, New York, a tiny town known now as a bedroom community for Albany. Facing rival from cheap, plastic alternatives, the mill began a pain contraction, pink-slipping one-third of its employees in 2001. At the time, the mill’s general manager described the commotion:” We’re a neighborhood hardware store, and China is the Home Depot of the world .”

Eventually, the cost of operates a mill became too high. The family sold the ground to a North Carolina-based timber investment fund called Forestland Group in 2009. Forestland Group began talks to sell the land to the Conservation Fund last year.

Alexander C Kaufman/ HuffPost A new home appears in a clearing near beside a small pond.

The loss of mill chores took a toll on the local economy. It hurt the culture, too. The beginners who purchased huge swaths of land bristled at hunters like Gale asking for permission to way deer on their property. And as developers clear whole mountainsides and build roads through them, there’s less work for loggers.

” When properties get fragmented, they lose the economic soundnes as timberland ,” Larry Selzer, chief executive of the Conservation Fund, told HuffPost.” Once they lose the economic value, then it’s an inevitable marching toward transition and developing .”

It’s a formula familiar to working-class folks in cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Industry moves out. Posh, monied professionals, taken with the allure of post-industrial areas, swoop in and buy up real estate. They start constructing new luxury homes. And before long, there runs the neighborhood.

But metropolis naturally expand over day and zoning policies can, in theory, be changed to accommodate dwelling that is more affordable. In rural, wooded fields, the gentrification process can be economically devastating. That’s why privately owned forests like the ones the Conservation Fund buys welcome sustainable forestry, which helps clear out dead wood and stimulate the woods less dense. Forestry-related industries currently provide 2.7 million American employment creation and lend $112 billion to the U.S. economy each year, in agreement with the Land Trust Alliance, a preservation group.

Those occupations are an economic engine for rural areas that industry has abandoned. Preservation easements help not only to preserve the ground, but to throw it in the hands of the ones who depend on it.

Historically, a working forest in a place like West Virginia might have been owned by a wealthy mill operator in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia or New York. But with a conservation easement in place, the land becomes more affordable for local purchasers. Those people can then set up forestry procedures, ski lodges or hiking trails.

” This is actually restoring some of the future economic upside back to rural communities ,” Selzer said.” That are essential for the future of this country. We have to figure out how to help rural economies not just survive, but thrive .”

The Conservation Fund’s latest push comes at a pivotal moment. Since the late 1990 s, the switching to a knowledge economy has concentrated wealth and prosperity in metropolis. Rural communities, by contrast, have suffered shrinking populations and higher rates of teen pregnancy, divorce, craving and illnes, according to a Wall Street Journal report from May that proclaimed rural America” the new inner city .”

” What we’re doing is preserving the rural character, intending grounds stay as forested lands, preserving the forest-based economy of logging, trucking, value-added manufacturing, like flooring, furniture and molding ,” Selzer said.

This approach to preservation is market-based. The cost of timberland actually clambered during the course of its Great Recession as investors looked for safe, hard-valued assets, and has hummed along since, according to sales data from F& W, a forest management consulting firm. Demand for solid-wood products, usually determined by the health of the construction sector, remains high as new-home marketings bounce back. Commodity prices for wood pulp surged during the years after the financial crisis and stabilized, remaining basically flat for the last three years.

Alexander C Kaufman/ HuffPost A new home under building near the Rensselaer Plateau.

” Demand for forest products is not going down ,” Selzer said.” We’re confident that the market will be there .”

Leaving woodlands mostly intact for sustainable logging also has environmental benefits. Woods act as a filter for planet-warming emissions from burning fossil fuels and industrial farming, sucking up and storing carbon. When they’re cut out, that carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. In the U.S. alone, 4,000 acres of woodland are lost to development every day.

Some of the forest tracts the Conservation Fund has purchased abut state or national forests and parks. Safeguarding that land helps stave off encroaching homes that often get destroyed during wildfires that are becoming increasingly intense as the planet warms and droughts persist, particularly out West. Operating woodlands, furthermore, help to keep wildfires from spreading because they are managed, Selzer said. Environmental groups typically protest forestry on public grounds, leaving in place timber that becomes easy tinder for a conflagration.

Of the nearly 50 million acres of privately held forest land remaining in the U.S ., Selzer said roughly 10 percentage is of” high conservation value ,” entailing it renders habitats to endangered species or offers special geological features. The Conservation Fund were concentrated in saving those 5 million acres.

The land is typically identified by state environmental and forestry agencies. In Cowee’s case, New York nation forestry bureaucrats picked the area for the unique geology of the Rensselaer Plateau. The tableland, part of the Taconic Mountains, was formed from ocean furrows and volcanic islands during a continental change 440 million years ago, and its deep layers of greywacke, a resistant redstone, are rich with nutrients, according to the Rensselaer Plateau Alliance.

In this case, the stars aligned — the money was in place and the owner was ready to sell the ground at the right time.

Funding remains a major obstacle to scaling the Conservation Fund’s modeling. The nonprofit now operates a $200 million Working Forest Fund, used to buy the properties outright at auction costs. The money comes from private philanthropists — for the Cowee deal, the Pittsburgh-based Richard King Mellon Foundation — and state and federal awards. The money boasts that, unlike other conservationists, it can” move at the hasten of business ,” meaning it’s an attractive purchaser for landowners who are not able have the interest or luxury of selling to a client with charitable ambitions.

To reach the goal of converting 5 million acres, Selzer said he wants to increase the fund’s capital to$ 1 billion.

Alexander C Kaufman/ HuffPost A HuffPost reporter joined two Conservation Fund bureaucrats as they surveyed the new property from the air on a commissioned helicopter.

One easy route to build more money available would be to increase federal budget for conserving working woodlands. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Legacy Program provides funding to groups like the Conservation Fund, but it’s limited. The bureau received $100 million in funding last year.

” We’re facing an enormous challenge there as public dollars for conservation recede, and ought to have receding for a number of years ,” Erin Heskett, director of national and regional services at the Land Trust Alliance, told HuffPost.” With this new administration, the level of funding for protecting our working forests, our farmland, our wildlife habitats, our clean drinking water sources and providing spaces for people to recreate — parks, and trails — is in question .”

The budget put forth by the White House this year proposed eliminating funding for the program altogether. But Selzer said the funding should be increased at the least fivefold to help finance the number of projects that organizations like his could take on to help rural voters who propelled President Donald Trump’s victory.

Selzer said here Conservation Fund is currently looking at woods in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Washington state for easements.

” About$ 1 billion of timberland changes hands each year ,” he said.” We’re tracking all of that .”

It’s a race against time. But where it studies, it can make a tremendous difference. Gale said he’s one of merely six or so independent loggers left in a 40 -mile radius of the Rensselaer Plateau. And in 30 years, he’s banking on these timbers still being here — that the region won’t become simply another sprawling suburb of Albany.

” I want it to be the same way , no homes ,” he said.” I’m hoping there’s going to be big tracts of land like that so they can hold hunting, and their children can hunt, too. We’re losing all our hunting grounds to metropoli people .”

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