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Latest OSI research report finds conservation could save jobs, water quality and wildlife habitat

NEW YORK, NY — May 21, 2012 — The 33-county coastal North Carolina region from Brunswick County to Pasquotank County is one of 11 priority areas in the Southeast where there are innovative opportunities for landscape-scale working forest conservation, according to a study released today by the Open Space Institute (OSI), a nonprofit land conservation organization.

Although development has slowed since housing prices peaked in 2006, OSI’s analysis suggests that as many as 344,000 acres in the coastal region—one of the world’s most productive for growing timber—could ultimately be converted to other uses, which would cost North Carolinians jobs while compromising water quality and wildlife habitat.

This analysis is drawn from Retaining Working Forests: Eastern North Carolina, an OSI report released today in collaboration with the Partnership for Southern Forest Conservation (PFSFC). 

“Eastern North Carolina has risen to the top of our priority list because of its unique concentration of working forests with strong associated markets, a plethora of at-risk species, outstanding water resources and an established conservation infrastructure,” said Peter Stengel of the U.S. Endowment for Forests & Communities and chair of PFSFC. “This report will provide a base from which to launch significant efforts to keep these working forests working into the future.”

North Carolina is currently the number-one forest-related employer in the eastern United States. The industry employs nearly 80,000 people while contributing nearly $5 billion to North Carolina’s gross domestic product and generating $445 million in income taxes each year.

In addition, working forestry in coastal North Carolina brings irreplaceable value to the public by protecting clean water sources and wildlife habitat while buffering the state’s substantial investment in already-conserved public lands. 

OSI’s report considers the economic realities facing North Carolina’s forestland owners, with a focus on timber investment management organizations (TIMOs) and real estate investment trusts (REITs), managers of large real estate holdings for investors. 

Because of the size of their holdings, TIMO and REIT investors are both critical conservation partners and important contributors to local economies. The average size of forestland ownerships in North Carolina is less than 15 acres, but the seven TIMO and REITs with forestland in the region hold an average of 153,000 acres. If the state is to maintain regional markets and jobs, it is essential that this land remain forest.  

“I highly encourage giving careful consideration to this report,” said North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steven W. Troxler. “We must make thoughtful decisions to ensure that North Carolinians continue to reap the benefits of our working forests.”

However, only 2 percent of the state’s working forests are protected with conservation easements—one of the primary tools that landowners, NGOs and government agencies have used in other parts of the country to keep forests in forest use. 

Forestland in eastern North Carolina also plays a critical role in maintaining rural drinking water quality. The conversion of these forests to other uses would increase sediment and nitrogen loading within estuaries, degrading household and municipal water sources for some 4 million people. 

The eastern part of the state also boasts the richest coastal biodiversity in the United States outside of Florida. The region supports endangered wildlife habitat, with as many as 83 at-risk species per county, including red-cockaded woodpecker, Bachman’s sparrow, red wolf, Carolina crawfish frog and mimic glass lizard.

As the lasting implications of the 2008 economic downturn become clear, OSI’s study emphasizes that nonprofits, landowners and policymakers must work together to identify ways to keep forestland as forest.

"This document will be extremely useful to forest landowners, timberland investors and conservation groups in coastal North Carolina, all of which have a keen interest in preserving our state’s rich and diverse forest resources,” said Camilla Herlevich, the executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust.

Conservation groups and landowners elsewhere have used working forest easements to protect large forests. OSI’s report examines why the easement model isn’t being used in eastern North Carolina and evaluates other conservation tools, such as Department of Defense programs, wetland mitigation, endangered species banking and longleaf pine restoration credits. 

“We are at a critical juncture and must identify new markets and strategic incentives for retaining large working forests,” said Kim Elliman, OSI’s CEO and president. “In this report, we state the challenge and find some new opportunities for achieving conservation at scale.”

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