Monday, January 30, 2012

Our Future Depends On People Like Clyde Harris

People like Clyde Harris and his family up in Franklin County, northeast of Durham, North Carolina, where I live, privately own nearly 60% of forest land remaining in the South.  This does not include urban forests that people like me own around their homes on city lots.

The vast majority of people say they hold this property “to enjoy beauty or scenery,” “as part of the home or vacation home,” “for privacy,” “to pass land onto children or other heirs,” “to protect nature and biological diversity".”  But approximately 75% of this private, non-corporate forest land is owned by people who are 55 or older so there is going to be a large generational transfer of southern forest land in the next decade or two.  private ownership of southern forest

If we are fortunate and these owners are as farsighted and wise as the Harrises, who reassembled the 3,200-acre  family farm and related forest land and, then to relieve the pressure to divide this land into pieces for development, worked instead with a Durham-based company called Unique Places to establish tools such as conservation and farm easements to ensure for posterity that the vast majority will be preserved as working farm and forest land.

Franklin, where I learned to fly an airplane a couple of years ago, and Durham, where I live, are two of just 39 out of North Carolina's 100 counties with state-recognized  farm  protection plans.

While still representing nearly a third of the nation's remaining forest land and having recovered from some of the unbridled devastation of the sixty years between 1850 and 1910, southern forest cover is only 40% of the 350  million acres it was 400 years ago when settlement began.

Alarmingly, the 27% of forest land that is corporately owned is less and less under the stewardship of enlightened management as working forests and is becoming increasingly dominated by real estate investment trusts and timber investment management organizations.  This means their risk of being swallowed up as part of the urban development footprint presently on course to clear an area size of the entire state of North Carolina by 2040, is much greater than the rate of population growth.

Development is not the problem per se nor is it all due to the “supersize it” consumption.  Development outpaces population growth, in part, because the free market fails to incorporate the cost of development “churn” which then means that adaptive reuse of existing development is greatly undervalued.

To progressives, conservatives and independents alike, the free market is a marvelous wonder and when given enough time, it can place the proper price on almost everything, including forest land; but it just doesn't work quickly enough for something so perishable or where it takes lifetimes to overcome the devastation created in the interim.

I suspect that every generation worries about the values of the next as lamented by journalist and author Richard Louv in his bestseller, a few years ago, entitled Last Child in the Woods, but the generations poised to inherit the 60% of southern forest land that is privately owned by individuals and families may be out our only hope.

If Louv’s follow-up book The Nature Principle, published last year, is on target, then the nature-deficit disorder he documents will spawn a new sense of conservation in this century that is even stronger than the environmentalism of the one just concluded.  As he describes, more than just protecting or setting aside natural areas, new generations will come to celebrate and incorporate nature in our “homes, workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, cities, suburbs, and farms.”

Hopefully he’s right, because If they don't preserve these forests as well or better than their ancestors have, it might not be the end of the world but it will sure look, feel and taste like it.

No comments: