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Investing (Prudently) in Conservation


Havre de Grace. -- It didn't look much like a business meeting. We were just six guys out walking in the woods on a nice afternoon. But all of us had a deal in mind.

Four of us were associated with a small local non-profit conservation outfit. We were interested in buying a piece of unusually pretty land, mostly to make sure it stayed that way. The other two were the owners of the place. They wanted to sell it. So here we were, getting together.

The owners proudly walked us up a woods trail to the spectacular waterfall that distinguished their property. The trail was well worn. Local people have known about the waterfall for years, and it's a popular spot for cookouts. But although there was plenty of evidence that the place is in quasi-public use, its users appear to respect it, for they had left very little trash.

A while back, the state of Maryland took an interest in this property as an addition to a nearby state park, and acquired an option to buy it. It seemed like a good buy; the agreed-upon price was less than the annual salary of one senior bureaucrat. But the state is now trying hard to learn frugality, and it recently allowed its option to expire.

After our walk to the waterfall, said to be one of the highest in Maryland, our group agreed that the property was unusually attractive and probably shouldn't be turned into a couple of expensive house lots -- the fate of so many scenic places within an hour's drive of the Baltimore Beltway. So we offered the owners a price slightly higher than the figure in the state's unexercised option.

Not really to our surprise, they turned us down. The new asking price, they said, was 50 percent more than the old price. With some regret, we thereupon crossed the waterfall property off our list of possible conservation sites. The money was a lot more than we could justify to the dues-paying members of our organization, especially at a time when real estate values around here appear to be declining.

This unsuccessful venture illustrates a principle which anyone working in land conservation needs to learn by heart. In conservation as in business, you have to be willing to make decisions based on value, and to walk away from proffered deals if the value isn't there. There is more land worth preserving than there will ever be money to do it with, and so investments in conservation have to be made as carefully as investments in stocks, bonds or pork bellies.

It's easy to declare that "the public" or "the people of Maryland" or "the citizens of Harford County" should step forward to buy the waterfall property, even at the higher price. But those with the biggest stake in its protection are those who currently trespass there in order to enjoy it, and they haven't been heard from. It's much easier for them to hope that benevolent outsiders -- the state, or if not the state a non-profit group like ours -- will come up with the cash and do the work.

This is in sharp contrast to another project in which we became involved not long ago. In that instance, a neighborhood association picked up the ball and ran with it. Fund-raisers were held, brochures printed, loans and corporate contributions obtained -- and before long, an important natural area had been purchased. Community concern, at the neighborhood level, made the difference.

The mail I receive is full of pleas from national environmental organizations, and often they have a dramatic if not grandiose theme. We must save the rain forests, or the Cascades, or the tall-grass prairie, or -- closer to home -- the Chesapeake Bay. These are great goals, and any contributions to them are no doubt helpful.

But there is a lot to be done on a smaller scale, closer to home, just down the block or over the ridge. There are innumerable little chunks of country worth protecting from the bulldozers, but no ++ one is going to send out national fund-raising letters on their behalf, and no politician is going to win votes by going after tax money for them. If they're to be preserved, the effort will have to be local.

Note that we're talking here about "country" and not just "land." Aldo Leopold drew the distinction nicely. "Land is the place where corn, gullies and mortgages grow," he wrote in "A Sand County Almanac." (Townhouses and split-levels grow on land too, he might have added.) But "country" isn't so tangible; it's "the personality of land, the collective harmony of its soil, life, and weather."

Mr. Leopold had some other good things to say about both land and country, and some of them occurred to me as I followed the owners of the waterfall along the trespassers' trail through the woods. Though the courthouse records say otherwise, he wrote, "at daybreak I am the sole owner of all the acres I can walk over."

You don't have to own acres to enjoy them, in other words, and if you do own them you may have a hard time keeping others from enjoying them too, even if it's only when you're not around.

Around here, it's been assured that there are going to be some woodsy acres left for the next generation of kids to walk over at daybreak, and that's good. But there ought to be a lot more, and if the neighborhood-level conservation movement keeps on growing, there will be.

Peter A. Jay's column appears here each week.

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