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Grass-Roots Private Trusts Fill Gap in Wilderness Preservation

June 25, 1989|PAIGE St. JOHN | Associated Press

COPPER HARBOR, Mich. — Preserving the wilderness once was left largely to the government. Now, private trusts are buying up land across the country in an effort to save the unplowed, the undrained and the undeveloped.

That much is obvious on the northern border of Michigan, on a spur of land that locals call the beginning of the world and tourists say is the end.

Free-lance naturalist Jim Rooks, trudging deep into the stand of towering Estivant pines on a recent day, suddenly stopped and pointed with the exuberance of a child. "There!"

He almost toppled over as he arched back to gaze up at the giant before him. It is a Gargantuan white pine, 300 or more years old.

Then Rooks pointed out 19 wide table tops of cut stumps, now turned black. He had come upon them in June, 1987.

"Oh, my God, my heart," Rooks said, recalling the warm, sickening day with its buzz of saws. "Every tree was a drop of blood."

Extensive Stand

Rooks and other Michigan environmentalists say that these giant pine trees of the Keweenaw Peninsula by Lake Superior are the largest, most extensive stand of unprotected white pine in the eastern United States.

The logging company that owns the land is ready to harvest the trees, but, for varied reasons, neither the U.S. Forest Service nor the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has tried to save the stand. The federal government is concentrating on filling in gaps in existing national forests while the state never has formally considered saving the pines, officials with both agencies say.

Instead, the battle for the Estivant pines, named for the French merchant who bought much of the local land in 1857, has fallen into private hands, paid for by anonymous donors, blue-collar philanthropists and grade-school students.

It is, conservationists say, typical of new preservation efforts throughout the nation.

"If the job is going to get done, we're going to have to roll up our own sleeves and do it as private citizens," said Russell van Herik, vice president for the national Nature Conservancy's Midwest region in Minneapolis.

Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy is one of a growing number of private land trusts that are buying up land and protecting endangered species as quickly as donations to cover the purchases come in.

A survey by the national Land Trust Exchange, a coordinating body in Alexandria, Va., turned up 743 nonprofit land trusts across the United States last year, up from 535 only three years earlier. Half of them have no staffs and less than $10,000 a year to spend. Together their memberships amount to 640,000 people.

They range from the newly formed Kachemak Bay Heritage Land Trust in wilderness-rich Homer, Alaska, to the 98-year-old Trustees of Reservations in crowded Massachusetts.

"It's an amazingly rapid-growing movement," said Jean Hocker, executive director of the exchange.

"What's happened is a sense of real dismay of what's happening in communities--a feeling that the people who live there have to take care of it," Hocker said. "As development pressures increase on the land, people are realizing that protection of open land is the responsibility of all of us."

Although private trusts also guard land for scenic views and playgrounds, the strongest interest is in preserving ecologically important areas, Hocker said. Some trusts manage the sanctuaries on their own, while others turn them over to government agencies for public parks and forests.

Van Herik said the Nature Conservancy considers itself "the Noah's ark of this country." The national trust, which centers its efforts on endangered species and ecologies, has set aside 3.5 million acres of land, including 396 preserves in 12 Midwestern states.

Despite their growth, private land trusts will not replace government land programs, a U.S. Forest Service official said. "To us, they are complimentary," said Harold Bolt, acting regional land director for the Forest Service in Milwaukee, Wis.

The Forest Service has budgeted $2 million this year to buy land within national forests in Ohio and Illinois. It plans to spend more than $20 million for the entire Northeast.

Government Slower to Act

But when it comes to land outside the national forests, it takes an average of 10 years to identify, study, propose, debate and designate land for federal acquisition, said Jane Elder, head of the Sierra Club's Midwest offices in Madison, Wis.

"Land trusts can move more quickly, less expensively, and sometimes people will consider selling to private individuals when they won't even talk to the federal government," Hocker said.

And, Elder added, there is the worry that public designation as a wilderness area is a kiss of death to the virginity of land surrounded by population centers.

"There's a lot of fear in the Midwest that once land is designated, it will get loved to death," by backpackers, trail bikes and others using it, she said.

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