Sunday, November 15, 2009

Signing a Signature

"I have read many definitions of what is a conservation- ist, ...but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land."
Aldo Leopold from "November" in A Sand County Almanac

One of my mottoes has long been "Be true to the dreams of your youth." For about as long as I can remember, I have wanted to own a place in the country. It started when I was very young and my parents would take me from our home on Long Island to wonderful places in upstate New York where I would freely explore the woods and fields and study the simple little cottages, cabins and camps. My dreams became more vivid during my college years as I studied forestry and longed to have a place where I could practice what I learned.

Life often gets in the way of dreams. Plans change. Expectations get frustrated. Priorities evolve. But some dreams, even after decades, don't go away. Maybe it's a good idea to pay attention to those.

It may have been on one of those mornings on Moose Hill as I sat in quiet solitude, observing and absorbing the wild world around me and thinking about my life that I decided it was time to act. Dreaming about owning a woodlot is a little different than a fantasy about skydiving. Forest management is best contemplated in time frames that span decades, especially here in the Northeast. By waiting until my mid-50's to act, I've blown it in a way. I likely won't live long enough to see the true fruits of any efforts at timber stand management, but much of the joy may be in the journey and not just the destination.

About 20 years ago, I set up one of those savings plans where money is automatically transferred from one account to another every month. I called it my Dream Account. The amount was very modest, but with steady contributions and asset appreciation (Well, until the market went in the toilet and almost ruined everything.), my balance eventually grew large enough to actually start shopping around for a specially opportunity.

Pretty quickly, it became clear that I would have to compromise on some of my wishes. Here in the affluent and populous Northeast, even rugged and remote places fetch high prices because of the potential for development. Land values are not based on capacity to grow trees or a crop, but rather their potential to sprout shopping malls, housing developments or second homes. My perfect place would be large enough to practice some real forestry - about 10 acres or more - and have a spot to build a little cabin. Most places I could find even close to my price range were too wet, too rocky, or too hard to get to. In other words, in the language of real estate developers, they were not "buildable." The impulse to speculate on land is powerful, and even these places seemed very expensive.

It was fun shopping around, though. I would check online listings from realtors and when I found something interesting, I would ask for more information. It was often hard getting details on properties, I guess because the potential commissions on such small deals are not much of a motivation to real estate agents. I always asked for as much informations as possible so I could find a place on my own, knowing that in one visit I would learn more about the property than any agent, and possibly even the owner. I would beat the bushes and stumble around in the woods looking for old property lines and corner markers. Once I located a place, I would try to devise fantasy silvicultural plans and build imaginary cabins. On the places I saw, none of these dreams ever crystallized to the point that I wanted to make an offer.

One day last spring I saw some listings for land that seemed very cheap. I quickly e-mailed for more information, but as so often happened, even the listing agent didn't seem interested in helping out much. By pouring over the little information I did get, I discovered that the land was so inexpensive because it was protected by a "conservation restriction." It seems the state had a program where landowners could sell development rights to the state and the land would be protected from development and forever dedicated to open space uses like agriculture, forestry or recreation. The land would remain in private hands and could be managed, but would remain open and not converted to residential or commercial developments. Without the upward pressure from speculation - unfounded or otherwise - the prices for these places more realistically reflect their potential for their intended uses.

Rather than continuing to wrestle with reluctant realtors, I contacted the organization that facilitated the conservation restrictions, asking if they knew of any protected land that might be for sale. As luck would have it, they had one on their own books they wanted to sell. After a few e-mails and a couple of visits to the property, I decided to make an offer, which was graciously accepted, and after a few months of waiting for slowly-turning legal tumblers to fall into place, on November 6, 2009 I became a proud landowner.

I have 7.3 acres in Royalston, Massachusetts. A powerline easement runs along one long side of the property, so the area of actual woodlot is about 6.5 acres. The conservation restriction prohibits building, so a cabin may not happen, but it remains to be seen if a temporary shack associated with my forest management activities might not be possible. The land is about 95 miles and two hours from home; just within my desired travel radius. I wanted a place I could reasonably visit on a day trip. It's not perfect, but I'm not getting any younger, and I didn't want the perfect to become the enemy of the good.

The land has 250 feet of good road frontage and is convenient to to town of Athol, MA. It is gently sloping and not very rocky. It was heavily logged about 30 years ago but hasn't been touched since, so it's now heavily stocked with a vigorous, young forest. The land is moist and productive and I have expectations that many of the young red oak and white pine growing there will respond well to my care.

So far, I've been there three times, but not yet as the owner. I have some photos and preliminary forest measurements, but I'm eager to get back there and begin some real work. The first thing I need to do is mark the boundaries. From the deed, an old map and some evidence on the ground, I'll be able to do that. I've started asking around to get some help building a woods road so I can drive onto the property. I need to do an inventory so I can start developing a management plan. I look forward to the possibility of working with some local foresters and loggers. It's a pretty small place as woodlots go so I have to be realistic about the potential for commercial operations, but in the mean time I'll have a lot of fun making plans and cutting all the firewood I want.

So, after decades of dreaming, a few years of searching and few months of waiting, I was finally able to put my signature on a piece of paper and buy my woodlot. Now I can begin writing my signature on the land.

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