Timber companies earmark prime land for development

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Timber companies across the country are transforming their most desirable forestland into subdivisions and resorts.

Logging is no longer the Northwest’s economic engine, and demand nationally for second homes and rural lifestyles appears limitless.

In Maine, residents are bitterly divided over a Plum Creek Timber Co. plan to build resorts and vacation homes in a 425,000-acre swath of lakes and forests. Plum Creek is the nation’s largest private landowner.

Other big timber companies are finding their own niches. Weyerhaeuser split several patches of forest in Washington and marketed the large parcels to people who want to try forestry around their new home.

Timber companies say they don’t intend to sell out the nation’s woods. They want to pluck land in prime recreation spots and reinvest in more remote forests.

But the movement has conservationists scrambling to buy forestland or pay companies not to develop it. Houses increase fire danger, they say. Plus, trees provide a home for critters and a playground for hunters and hikers.

People can’t have it both ways – preserving forests and living in them, too – says Ted Lorensen, Oregon’s assistant state forester.

“We need to look in the mirror,” he says. “We’re the ones who are driving this. The public views forestland as, ‘It’s our water, it’s our forest.’ Yet we want to own a piece of it.”

About 1 million acres of private forests are being developed every year, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. An additional 44 million acres are expected to see housing by 2030.

Companies used to own forests and process the timber in their mills. Today, many businesses specialize in one or the other. The result: About half the private forestland in the country has changed hands in the past decade. Boise Cascade sold its forests – including 635,000 acres in Oregon – to an investment group two years ago. International Paper sold most of its 6.8 million acres this year to focus on paper and packaging.

Meanwhile, timber investment management organizations and real estate investment trusts have gained popularity because they offer tax advantages. Many in the industry say this model pressures firms to profit by developing land.

There’s plenty of demand. When stocks tanked several years ago and interest rates sank, investors turned to real estate. Plus, baby boomers with a thirst for the outdoors were buying homes where they could vacation or retire.

Gracie and Tom Pauly, who run a software business from their home near Tacoma, Wash., are the target audience. The astronomy buffs wanted a weekend getaway where stars, rather than cars, lit the night sky. And they wanted someplace where they could retire after their 16-year-old son finishes college.

The Paulys decided to build a home, observatory and planetarium at Nisqually River Forest Reserve, where Washington-based Weyerhaeuser carved 20-acre lots from a commercial forest.

You won’t find garage sales or bus stops here. Instead, buyers receive a personal forestry plan and lesson. They attend classes on everything from using a compass to harvesting timber. Roads are gravel. And, if you stand still, you can hear the river gurgling below.

“My preference is to build an observatory and house on that big white thing right there called Mount Rainier,” jokes Tom Pauly, a former science teacher and avid hiker. “For some reason, the federal government frowns on that. So this is the next best thing.”

The Paulys forged trails, dug a well, cleared a home site and paid for a barrage of tests to show they’ll treat the land well.

Weyerhaeuser has long sold slivers of land with beautiful scenery, easy access to town and little importance to the company’s forestry, says Scott Dahlquist, vice president of the real estate division.

But Weyerhaeuser – still a publicly traded company – recently began marketing communities with an outdoorsy theme.

“People are looking for an investment,” Dahlquist says. “They’re looking for a lifestyle. And there’s some element of the frontier: controlling your own destiny.”

In most states, it’s possible to divide rural land into roomy lots or apply for new uses. Oregon prevents forest owners from creating lots smaller than 80 acres and sets a high bar for rezoning land.

When regular people move to the woods, says Lorensen of the state Forestry Department, “it generally results in less timber production. It often results in less forestland.”

As forestland gets developed, conservation groups scurry to preserve the most important pieces.

The Nature Conservancy has spent about $1 billion buying forests or paying for agreements that prevent development and guarantee public access.

One of the nation’s largest conservation deals protects 218,000 acres of former International Paper land in 10 states. And 98 percent of the land in Plum Creek’s Maine proposal will be protected if the state approves development.

Companies can satisfy shareholders while pleasing people who want to keep forests wild, says Bill Ginn, who manages the conservancy’s Global Forest Partnership.

“People are passionate about where they live,” he says. “It’s not an abstract concept to them. It’s their backyard.”

Laura Oppenheimer is a staff writer for The Oregonian of Portland, Ore. She can be contacted at loppenheimer@news.oregonian.com.

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