By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON - Private investors have backed what supporters say is one of the largest conservation acquisitions ever in the eastern United States, offering a promising new model to protect land.
Conservation group the Nature Conservancy announced Monday that it and partners now control almost 400 square miles (1,000 sq km) of land in three states in the central Appalachian Mountains, traditionally heavily dependent on coal mining.
The tracts, part of what backers say is one of the world's largest intact forests, were purchased from timber management entities through a $130 million investment fund.
The parcels connect other protected areas in a region that scientists have identified as a global biodiversity hotspot and a key source of freshwater, said Charlotte Kaiser, managing director of the charity's investing arm, NatureVest.
"I like to think we're setting a bar for climate-resilient forest management that can generate a return, that investors can find attractive and that others will seek to emulate," Kaiser told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Nature Conservancy will manage the land, known as the Cumberland Forest Project, for a decade, she said and will provide investors financial returns from three sources: revenue from certified sustainable timber sales, carbon offset credits and the eventual sale of the land, at the end of the period, with long-term or permanent management restrictions in place.
Meanwhile, the project will work to remediate degraded forests, bolster biodiversity, create sustainable timber management and help small businesses in the region transition away from mining.
Such projects – combining forest conservation and investment returns – are unique at such a scale, Kaiser said, with large acquisitions generally reliant on philanthropy.
The project owns only the land's surface rights, and some mining will continue.
Coal mining has defined the area for at least a century, although the industry has declined massively in recent years amid mechanization and the growth of other forms of energy.
Coal production in Appalachia fell by 45 percent in the decade to 2015, according to research from West Virginia University — more than twice the national decline.
Still, the industry has left a significant mark: A study last year from Duke University and others estimated that coal mining has touched nearly 6,000 sq km (1.5 million acres) in the central Appalachians.
Unlike some conservation initiatives, the Cumberland project will seek to strengthen the use of the land by local communities, including for recreation and employment — albeit on a more sustainable footing.
"We're trying to reverse that narrative of all of the money going out of coal country for the benefit of someone else," said Locke Ogens, Virginia director for the Nature Conservancy.
Ogens said her group is confident it can put together similar large-scale investment projects in the future and is already drawing up a vision of a conservation "super highway" that can cut across a large swath of the country.
"That's the biggest hope - that we'll be able to use this as a model going forward to do really big land projects that will help nature and people," she said.