16,000 Forested Acres Bought in NY, New England

By Brian Nearing, Albany Times Union

A national conservation group is protecting more than 16,000 acres of forest in Rensselaer and Washington counties from potential development while also guaranteeing it remains available for sustainable forestry and recreation.

Lands purchased by the Virginia-based Conservation Fund include forests next to Cherry Plain State Park and the Capital District Wildlife Management Area, which cover about 4,300 acres in the southern Rensselaer County town of Stephentown.

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Young forest habitat in eastern New York supports native New England cottontails./A. Cheeseman

Ultimately, the group will work with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to determine how to protect the forests while also ensuring the lands will continue to supply timber to local mills that support about 100 jobs.

The $25 million purchase price covered more than 16,600 acres in eastern New York as far north as the area near Shushan, Washington County, as well as another 6,400 acres in western Massachusetts and Vermont. The land was sold by North Carolina-based Heartwood Forestland, an affiliate of the Forestland Group, a timber investment firm that had owned it for about a decade.

"This purchase is an investment in the vitality of the Rensselaer Plateau and Taconic Region's forest economy, which is the largest natural resource-based economic sector in the state," said Tom Duffus, a vice president with the Conservation Fund.

"We are seeing the land in the region being split up and developed, with more people building big, fancy homes," said Duffus. “What we do is buy time, for ourselves and our partners to figure out long-term conservation solutions."

He said the fund foresees keeping the land, parts of which are leased by private hunting clubs, as "status quo" for the foreseeable future. "You should not notice any changes there now," he said.

The purchase was part of the organization's Working Forest Fund, which so far has protected more than a half-million acres in 16 states.

DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said his agency will now work with the fund to study how to best protect the properties, adding that the state was "grateful" for the purchase.

"We will work with the fund, the Rensselaer Plateau Alliance, our sister states, municipal governments and other key stakeholders to determine how best to conserve these precious natural areas for future generations," Seggos said.

The lands are commonly known as the Cowee Forest, since the land was once owned by W.J. Cowee in Berlin, a forestry company that operated in the region for more than a century before selling to the Forestland Co.

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Cooper's hawks benefit from forests protected in New York and New England./T. Berriman

The lands also will be managed for improved wildlife habitat for seven species of national importance, like the New England cottontail, and four hawk species listed by the New York State Endangered Species Act — Cooper's hawk, red-shouldered hawk, broad-winged hawk and northern goshawk.

"This acquisition will conserve significant natural areas including the Poestenkill Headwaters, Stump Pond, Firetower Hill and Turner Mountain, and will support the local economy through continued sustainable forestry and increased outdoor recreation opportunities, while still paying property taxes," said Jim Bonesteel, executive director of the Rensselaer Plateau Alliance.

A large share of the permanent conservation funding for the New York portion will come from the U.S Forest Service's Forest Legacy Program through the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Duffus said there is about $5.5 million in federal funding available to help support the effort, which likely will help the state acquire "interests" in the properties, which could include either conservation easements or direct ownership.