Inequality and an ecosystem service transition

Privately owned forests in the US are being increasingly converted to housing for the wealthy as the demand for cultural ecosystem service, such as recreation and beauty, is out-competing demands for provisioning services such as timber and pulp. These changes are having extensive effects on conservation and forest management practices. They are also resulting in a loss of public access to private forests.

These changes are described in a Oct 13th NY Times article As Logging Fades, Rich Carve Up Open Land in West:

With the timber industry in steep decline, recreation is pushing aside logging as the biggest undertaking in the national forests and grasslands, making nearby private tracts more desirable — and valuable, in a sort of ratchet effect — to people who enjoy outdoor activities and ample elbow room and who have the means to take title to what they want.  Some old-line logging companies, including Plum Creek Timber, the country’s largest private landowner, are cashing in, putting tens of thousands of wooded acres on the market from Montana to Oregon. Plum Creek, which owns about 1.2 million acres here in Montana alone, is getting up to $29,000 an acre for land that was worth perhaps $500 an acre for timber cutting.

Here in the West, questions of clout and class have been raised by the new arrivals.This year, the conservation group Trout Unlimited, which had been considering ending its involvement in disputes between private landowners and fishermen over public access to fishing streams, backtracked after its members rose up in protest. Some members accused the group of siding with the landowners by not fighting for fishermen’s access rights.

In parts of Colorado where communities have committed tax money to preserve open space, conflicts have erupted on the borders of the public lands over whether the programs — which in many cases buy out an owner’s right to develop property, but not the property itself — are simply enriching landowners who keep the land and the public off, too.

In ways that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, environmentalists and representatives of the timber industry are reaching across the table, drafting plans that would get loggers back into the national forests in exchange for agreements that would set aside certain areas for protection.

Both groups are feeling under siege: timber executives because of the decline in logging, and environmentalists because of the explosion of growth on the margins of the public lands.

Many environmentalists say they have come to realize that cutting down trees, if done responsibly, is not the worst thing that can happen to a forest, when the alternative is selling the land to people who want to build houses.

Most private timber tracts in the West, including those owned by Plum Creek, have traditionally been open to recreational use, treated as public entry ways into the vast national forests, grasslands and wilderness areas that in Montana alone add up to nearly 46,000 square miles, about the size of New York State. But in many places, the new owners are throwing up no trespassing signs and fences, blocking what generations of residents across the West have taken for granted — open and beckoning access into the woods to fish, hunt and camp.

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