Will one family's fortune
a New England gold mine?
by Lory Hough
name sounds remote. The North Woods.
This is the
Maine few tourists ever venture to, the Maine well beyond the clam shacks
and factory outlets and outdoor gear stores open 24 hours a day. This
is the land that Henry David Thoreau made famous in
Maine Woods, a 328-page journal of his three trips to the forests
of the Pine Tree State.
as the state motto boasts, the way life should be.
the way the Pingree family wants to keep it. Which is why last March the
reclusive clan (no one in the family even has the surname Pingree anymore),
spearheaded the largest private forestland protection project in the history
of the United States, giving a small, five-person nonprofit called the
New England Forestry Foundation
(NEFF) the option to purchase a $28 million conservation easement option.
The end result is that three-quarters of their 1 million acres in the
North Woods will be protected for eternity.
It's a move
Foster, an adjunct lecturer at the Kennedy School and the former dean
of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, hoped to see
happen when he was teaching a class back in 1992. The class, which focused
on the future of the 26-million-acre North Woods also called the
Northern Forest drafted a report that said one way to provide a
stabilizing influence on the economic, social, and environmental future
of the forest was to work directly with families that owned large tracts
are typically good stewards of land, balancing the costs of ownership
with the desire to preserve the land for wildlife and recreation," explained
Jay Winthrop, a former Harvard Business School student whose work in Foster's
class contributed to the report. "The most durable and effective conservation
deals make landowners partners, not adversaries, in achieving conservation
aims. These deals are a model for effective conservation. By partnering
with private landowners, the conservation community can extend its reach
and preserve wild places."
work was one report that caught the eye of Keith Ross, NEFF's vice president,
who was looking for ways to continue the foundation's 55-year track record
of supporting stewardship on private forestland. Eventually, in 1996,
Ross approached the Pingree family and proposed working with them to design
an easement that would meet the family's economic needs and their mutual
for such collaboration, points out Jim Heyes, education and communications
specialist for the NEFF, was ripe. Unlike the western part of the country,
where a good portion of land is publicly owned, New England's forests
are predominately private more than 80 percent. The problem with
this, says Foster, is that private ownership has become increasingly fragmented.
In southern New England, for instance, the average private forest ownership
in 1972 was 21.5 acres. By 1985, the figure was down to 10.3 acres. In
Maine, the numbers are higher although also declining. According to a
1999 report put out by the Maine
Forest Service, the average-size private plot in Maine was 60 acres
in 1990, down from 82 less than a decade earlier.
means for families like the Pingrees is that with four living generations
of family members involved in the ownership of the land more than
70 people the threat of fragmentation becomes a likely scenario.
100 percent consensus on a project as far-reaching and unheard of as this
one was not an easy exercise," admitted Steve Schley, a member of the
Pingree family. For starters, everyone had differing ideas on what was
best for the land ‹ some wanted to sell off pieces, others wanted to preserve
the whole lot.
the issue of estate taxes, which can gouge the family coffer.
there is an estate transfer," Heyes said, "there are substantial estate
taxes to be paid a force that has caused the sell-off of countless
family properties in New England and elsewhere. The Pingree family has
done extraordinarily well in maintaining this property through seven generations."
Schley said, "will help us combat incredible public policy disincentive
to ongoing sustainable forest management, like the U.S. Tax Code and the
ever-changing state and federal regulatory rules and climate."
into a legal agreement that removes the land's development potential and
transfers property rights from landowner to private group, the easement
lowers the market value, which in turn lowers the estate tax that must
be shouldered by future generations. The easement, in a way, becomes the
critical difference in the heirs' ability to keep the land intact.
explain why the use of easements is on the rise. According to the Land
Trust Alliance, as of 1998, local and regional land trusts held 7,392
conservation easements protecting approximately 1.4 million acres. A decade
earlier, easements protected just 290,000 acres. In terms of acreage,
the Pingree project will become the largest conservation easement of its
type, putting Maine on top, ahead of Montana, which has a little more
than 258,000 acres protected by easements.
the land from the development market, says Henry
Lee MPA '74, director of the Kennedy School's Environment
and Natural Resources Program and an adviser to the project, was an
are being lost," he said. "Protecting and preserving green space is critical.
Some things are irreversible. You don't see us digging up highways and
starting forests. We have to protect what we already have."
New England is more forested today than it was back in the early days.
American Indians, early colonists, and farmers had cleared the land for
settlements and farms and to stimulate bushy growth favored by certain
game species. They had harvested wood for houses, tools, furniture, and
fuel. By the time the 1800s rolled around, according to the NEFF, only
20 percent of southern and central New England was forested. By 1860,
Massachusetts was only about one-third forested, two-thirds cleared for
agriculture. But as Foster points out, this changed with the California
Gold Rush. Many New England farmers headed west with bigger dreams, turning
much of the farmland back into forest.
David Pingree, the family patriarch, looked north, not west, to fulfill
his dreams. A clipper ship merchant in Salem, Massachusetts, during the
mid-1800s, Pingree had inherited a large portion of his uncle's estate.
The money allowed Pingree to travel and trade cod and tea all over the
world. According to records held at the Peabody
Museum in Salem, he also traveled throughout New England, visiting
Maine and New Hampshire with his parents when he was a child. The family
vacations must have stuck with him. In 1841, the year he and his wife,
Ann Marie Kimball, welcomed a new baby, a boy named David who would later
go on to graduate from Harvard, Pingree began buying land in the two states,
later passing it on to David, Jr. The Pingree wealth, museum records show,
was so big that they were at one point the largest single taxpayer in
Maine and the largest individual landowner in New England.
of Maine's 20 million acres are forested and highly desirable,
including the Pingree's 229 miles of undeveloped, pristine shoreline frontage
on 110 lakes and ponds, 1,180 square miles of forestland, more than 2,000
miles of major river frontage, active bald eagle and peregrine falcon
nests, and several endangered and rare plant sites.
why the NEFF, which had never coordinated a deal as large as this one,
jumped at the chance to buy the protection rights although not
the land itself on the Pingree property.
will be protected forever from the threat of development at a very small
price only $37.10 an acre," Heyes said. "The value of protecting
this land as a working forest will only go up over time as populations
grow, as development creeps, crawls, and gallops over the land, and as
carbon emissions become a larger issue. At NEFF, we think it's a smart
move to protect this land now while we can still afford to do it."
they didn't feel it was necessary to buy the land outright, something
the Nature Conservancy recently did
when it purchased 185,000 acres the size of Baxter State Park
along Maine's St. John River.
think we need to own the land to protect it," Heyes said. "By prohibiting
development and mandating continued good stewardship, we are getting everything
we want out of the deal. The only thing the Pingree family can really
do under such an easement is manage the land for forest products, and
the incentive is to do it well."
forest management is a contentious issue, with the spin as mind boggling
as anything Capitol Hill has ever seen. It's particularly explosive in
a growing state like Maine.
more people, but not more land," said Ship Bright MPA 1992, a former deputy
commissioner for the Maine
Department of Conservation. Bright spent years of his life hotly debating
the issues from clearcutting to sustainable management to leaving
the trees untouched.
means for the land," he said, "is that more and more pressure is placed
on it. As a result, there's a strong yin and yang pull between the concept
of a 'working forest' and a 'pristine wilderness.' Environmentalists want
less done to the land, and recreationalists want more access, even if
it's privately owned. And then, there are the land owners like
the Pingrees who have to look at the return on their investment."
why folks like the Forest Ecology
Network's Jonathan Carter have mixed feelings about the project. While
admitting that the Pingrees do a better job than most in practicing good
forest management, he said this deal is a windfall profit for them.
getting $28 million for not doing anything more than they're already doing,"
he said by phone from the network's Augusta, Maine, office. "It's more
accurate to call this a 'development' deal."
last year issued a nonviolent "call for armed resistance" against paper
companies, said that in order for the NEFF and the Pingrees to label the
project a "conservation" deal, all logging activities would have to end
on the land. Currently, the easement allows for the continuation of maple
syrup production, canoe liveries, sporting camps, and commercial playgrounds.
It also allows for some clearcutting 3 percent, with an additional
7 percent added if each clearcut acre is matched by a planted one.
this is reasonable.
"If you understand
the dynamics of forestry," Foster said, "you understand that if you're
trying to grow a certain species the white pines in the Northeast
or the Douglas fir out West, for example you may have to clearcut
in order for what you want to come in and not some other species. There
are also other beneficial results from cutting, such as starting a new
forest with mixed ages, which helps protect against widespread fire and
insect devastation. There's also the value to wildlife associated with
early-stage succession of forests. You have to look at the whole forest
and not just the business of wood products. Then cutting becomes a worthwhile
tool for the enlightened forest manager."
that although clearcutting clearly "leaves a mess until new growth takes
over and people are shocked when they see it," the concept of a working
forest the term used to describe forests like the Pingree's
is something the family understands and does well.
This is one
reason the NEFF wanted to work with the Pingrees. Throughout the history
of Pingree ownership, Heyes noted, management of the forest has been science-based
and attempts to reproduce the cycles of natural disturbances in the forest.
If done right, practices like logging, for instance, will "mimic" what
fire and insect infestation would naturally do.
that sustainable timber management is compatible with lots of other things,"
he said, including wildlife habitat and recreational use. "We all use
forest products. Imagine the effect on the other forests of New England
if we took the more than 750,000 acres of Pingree lands completely out
of use. The loss of that supply would put incredible pressure on the other
lands that produce forest products, making it correspondingly more difficult
to manage sustainably."
to a study published in the February 99 issue of the American
Journal of Agricultural Economics, the impact would go beyond
New England. For every 50 acres of forest set aside and protected in North
America, the study contends, 2.5 acres of forest in Asia, South America,
Africa, and the former Soviet Union are lost.
this the "ecological footprint" the idea that anytime you use something,
you leave a footprint where that material came from. One of his students
even discovered that in Massachusetts, 95 percent of all wood products
come from forests elsewhere.
ownership patterns in Maine changing dramatically, some wonder if the
footprint will get even larger.
like Sappi Fine Paper and Georgia Pacific are all moving out," Carter
said. "Mills are closing and the pulp and paper industry is down. The
reality is that paper makers can grow wood in warmer climates offshore
a lot cheaper. You can't grow wood in Maine fast enough. It's just too
that while he sees this as a good thing for Maine, he worried about what
would happen to the land. Some companies, knowing the dollar value of
their holdings, are selling large tracts to management groups who in turn
resell to housing developers. Instead, Carter would like to see the government
buy the land and create a 3.2-million-acre national park and preserve
an idea that was started about six years ago and seems to be gaining
momentum in both the public and political arenas.
Grow on Trees
the government to protect their land with potential strings and
restrictions attached was something the Pingrees haven't been willing
to do, however. The NEFF, therefore, will have to work extra hard during
the next two years to raise the $28 million it needs to purchase the easement.
resources," Foster said. "But the Pingree family doesn't want any public
money. Traditionally, you'd turn to a federal agency that provides funding
to acquire land. But that's been ruled out. NEFF has to go entirely private
conservation foundations can help but there is a lot of money on the table
in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York right now," said Rob Bryan
of the Maine Audubon Society,
listing several other "big deals" currently taking place, such as the
Nature Conservancy's St. John River purchase. "However, these and other
major land sales are a once-in-a-century opportunity, and the timing in
terms of potential conservation capital couldn't be better. The conservation
community needs to find creative ways to tap new wealth."
way could be through carbon sequestration the process of removing
CO2 from the atmosphere and converting it into stored compounds. Trees
act as sponges, absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it in their
biomass, or wood. Conversely, when forests are cleared, carbon that was
stored in living trees is returned to the atmosphere either quickly
(through a forest fire), or gradually (as forest products, such as wood
and paper, are discarded and decompose).
Lee have been working with the NEFF to determine if selling carbon offset
rights to utility companies would be a feasible way to raise the funds.
Currently, more than half of the electricity presently generated in the
United States is produced in coal-fired power plants.
offset rights, utilities would pay landowners like the Pingrees to leave
the trees where they are, taking in carbon. This would allow them to "make
up" for emitting harmful CO2 into the atmosphere emissions that
have affected global climate changes. Several utilities and private companies
like New England Electric and Monsanto are currently involved in sequestration
programs abroad Malaysia, Ghana, Indonesia, India, and Costa Rica
but not in the United States.
how the money is raised, or what the debates on forest management ultimately
reveal, one thing is for certain: without conservation projects like the
Pingree's, Maine's claim to fame as the most forested state in the nation
could be at risk. And observations like Thoreau's that "what is most striking
in the Maine wilderness is the continuousness of the forest, with fewer
open intervals than you had imagined," will be found only as distant memories
in the pages of literature.