Leveling trees not so clear-cut Forest: If commercial forestland is managed well, it is sustainable. It creates better air and water quality.

On The Bay

January 23, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IT MIGHT at first seem odd for Larry Walton to talk about saving the environment in the midst of an 80-acre clear-cut, where his loggers a few years ago leveled almost every tree in sight.

But when someone who manages 80,000 acres of forests says he has something interesting to show you on a walk in the woods, you go.

Walton, who works for Chesapeake Corp., a Virginia-based Fortune 500 company, appreciates trees for a lot more than the price they can fetch. Sometimes, he wrote me recently, they seem most important "as a quiet place to reflect on this hectic world we live in."

He also wrote: "Take away [Chesapeake's] ability to clear-cut, and you have taken away our ability to compete in the marketplace."

He gets frustrated, Walton says, by the way environmentalists and writers, including me, casually lump clear-cutting into lists of environmental insults, like a shorthand for something unsavory.

The reality is, commercial forestland is no wilderness park. But if it is managed well, it is sustainable (trees are replanted). It creates better air and water quality and more wildlife habitat than most human land uses.

By competing economically, it also competes against the sprawl development that is wrecking the Maryland landscape.

A fresh clear-cut is ugly, even to a forester, Walton says. He finds it intriguing to compare his industry to farming.

The clear-cut where we are talking, on Maryland's lower Eastern Shore, was a farm earlier in the century. "The farmer grew corn, and every year he 'clear-cut' it, and I don't imagine that bothered anyone," Walton says.

Now, four years after Chesapeake cut trees, the loblolly pines it replanted are 8 to 10 feet high, interspersed with lots of shrubby undergrowth, where birds flit about.

In another decade or so, loggers will thin the wood, taking perhaps half the trees for pulpwood. In 40 years, they will return for the rest -- two "harvests" in about half a century, with minimal inputs of fertilizer and other chemicals, compared with the farmer's annual cycle.

Walton knows, of course, that humans relate to trees differently than to corn. The reasons a farm harvest scene gives us pleasure, and a forest clear-cut repels us, perhaps lies as deep as our evolvement from tree-swinging apes.

Today, the forest manager has more pressing issues to discuss, such as the fate of some of the prettiest woodlands in Maryland, places that embody the aesthetic and spiritual values of trees that he wrote about.

Such values, his letter added, "have been the most important to me lately they were the reason I studied forestry in the first place."

'A big landowner'

These are interesting times for Walton and Chesapeake Corp. The paper and packaging giant has sold the paper mill that was the reason for its owning 325,000 acres of timberland across Maryland and Virginia.

It has a 15-year contract to supply timber to other mills. "But basically the company's just a big landowner now, and that makes you look at land differently," Walton says.

That is to say Chesapeake's future lies less permanently in forestlands. It has stockholders to satisfy, and has a development subsidiary, Delmarva Properties, which has developed more than 10,000 acres, mostly in Virginia.

Walton leaves the clear-cut and presses into a woods of older, big, mixed-growth hardwoods and pine, where small headwaters run clear and dark, and the deep leaf litter is cratered by the rooting of wild turkeys or deer.

Educational study

Crossing a tiny drainage ditch on the way in, Walton notes it was the start of a recent, joint educational effort, "Connections to the Bay" that he did with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Environmentalists and loggers traveled from the ditch, downstream and downriver, to a watermen's village, talking about how foresters' land use affects bay water quality.

Now we have walked to where Chesapeake's forest borders two creeks for more than a mile. From the high, wooded banks you can peer across broad, smooth waters and a marsh stalked by herons.

It is gorgeous, with the pearly light of a wet, winter day like burnished pewter on the creek. A bald eagle dips low, reflecting perfectly in the water.

"Sold!" I joke to Walton. "I'll take this water view lot right here."

Alternate plan

The truth is, such parts of Chesapeake's vast forest, which includes hundreds of miles of waterfront, are getting worth too much for Delmarva Properties to leave them in care of Walton's Forest Products division.

The alternative is to sell to a developer who would make dozens of lots.

Walton has a plan he is floating to his bosses -- "a tough sell, but the best chance I've got to keep places like this in forestry."

Along the waterfront of the 200 acre-plus holding, Walton would make three high-priced home sites, with conservation restrictions so that the only loss of trees would be for the footprint of the houses and small access roads. The homes would be set behind a larger waterfront forest buffer than the 100 feet Maryland's Critical Areas law requires.

The bulk of the rest of the property would remain in intensive forestry management, with thinning, clear-cutting, and replanting, says Walton, who also hopes to add to the package a mix of tax credits for open space easements, and state "rural legacy" money for preserving forestland.

Setting an example

"What I'm banking on is that our stockholders could make more than if we just sold out to a traditional developer, and we can keep harvesting trees," he says.

If it can't work here, he's not sure where it could. Conversely, if successful, this could be a template for other Chesapeake properties.

The land has to work harder to compete, to stay in trees, he says. "Last year we made $360,000 leasing timberland to deer hunters, and we need to, because the board of directors is looking at alternatives."

If he could persuade people of anything, he concludes, "It is that foresters care about more than clear-cutting, and they need to know how hard it is getting for trees to compete."

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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