Paying the price for preservation Conservation: Environmental groups increasingly using their buying power to protect prized lands from development.

September 09, 1998|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

An article in yesterday's Maryland section misspelled the name of Nature Conservancy President John Sawhill.

The Sun regrets the error.

These days, the way to truly protect national parks, historic areas and environmental sanctuaries is to buy them before the developers do -- or find someone who will.

The Antietam National Battlefield in Western Maryland's Washington County is a case in point. Six months ago, the final section of the field not already national land came up for sale for the first time in a century. Developers hoping to build condos were homing in.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

John Howard, the battlefield's superintendent, needed $660,000, fast. But he immediately ruled out one obvious potential buyer: his employer, the federal government.

"I don't mean to laugh," he said, placing his official beige Park Service hat squarely on his head. "It's just that the whole idea of Congress appropriating money to buy a piece of land is not very popular right now. It's become such a political game we're playing -- and we didn't have that kind of time."

Instead, he called a private environmental group, and last week, The Conservation Fund, a Virginia-based, national nonprofit organization, purchased the 179 acres and gave the land to the Park Service.

Like The Conservation Fund, environmentalists across the country are evolving from tree-hugging naturalists into sophisticated real estate agents, maneuvering through land deals with expertise equal to that of the big developers they're competing against.

Through a half-century of economic growth and urban sprawl, these groups have lobbied for legislation to protect prized lands. They've strapped themselves to trees, dangled banners from bridges and scaled city office buildings. Tired of waiting four, five, sometimes 10 years for local and federal jurisdictions to come through with funds, environmental directors are trying a new tack, figuring that if you can't beat the developers, and you don't want to join them, you might as well learn how they do it.

"We've become advisers, middlemen, whatever you want to call us," said Patrick F. Noonan, chairman of The Conservation Fund. "Frankly, as we go forward in the future, there's only going to be more need for it."

During the past 10 years, the Audubon Society, American Land Trust, Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and half a dozen others have become the proud owners of barrier islands off the coast of Georgia, sanctuaries in Maine, open prairie in Nebraska, swamps in Florida and battlefields in Maryland.

The Nature Conservancy began in the first half of the century as a circle of scholars who convened to study nature and their bible, a book called "The Naturalist's Guide to the Americas." Today, it is a manual of 26 ways to gain property rights, including buying mineral rights to prevent deforestation.

Half the conservancy's staff of more than 500 has a background in land acquisition -- lawyers, real estate agents, even former developers.

"We have to deal in a sophisticated way or we will lose these properties," said John Sawmill, president of the Nature Conservancy, who was a ranking official of General American Investors, Philip Morris, North American Coal and the Vanguard Group of Mutual Funds. "That's why we have developed a very experienced group of people to negotiate these transactions."

National parks are not alone in calling on environmental groups for help. Neighbors call, too.

"Local people are seeing that sometimes the only way they can protect the land that they care about is to call an environmental group or a nature conservancy or even the Audubon Society," said National Audubon Society President John Flicker. "The regulatory process is unsatisfactory because they see development is moving ahead anyway."

On the Maryland-West Virginia border, near the small town of Oakland, Md., are hundreds of acres of acidic moss carpeting known as Cranesville Swamp. In the thick of a forest that grows out of it, visitors can feel sub-arctic air, part of a climatic anomaly, and find carnivorous plants that feed on insects.

Residents had largely taken for granted the wide-open space of Garrett County, where 20 percent of land is in public hands. In recent years, two ski resorts and nearby Deep Creek Lake have become increasingly popular, bringing an increased threat of development. The swamp's neighbors called in the Nature Conservancy.

Since 1991, the conservancy has created a nature preserve spanning 700 acres, open to the public, with explanatory placards lining a path.

Most neighbors have agreed to sell environmental easements and give the conservancy first rights to their land if they sell, thwarting developers.

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