INTO THE WOODS The Eastern Shore's largest private landholder says it's found a way to cut down trees and preserve forests at the same time. And it's winning the grudging admiration of a number of conservationists

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You meet Tom Tyler early. He's going to take you for a walk in his woods on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and you're going to need all day to see even part of it. A couple days would be better, he says; an airplane better yet, or even a satellite shot of the Chesapeake Bay region. It's a good-sized woods.

On this and subsequent travels, Mr. Tyler will show you hidden spots of well-preserved natural beauty the equal of Maryland's finest public parks; also large tracts that most people, he thinks, would say "look like hell -- like rape." It is fair to say that he is proud of both the beautiful and the seemingly ugly.

There is nothing simple about these vast forest lands; or about Mr. Tyler, who harbors deep suspicions about the environmental movement's agenda for private property, yet has become a key and valued player in one of the more ambitious environmental projects on the Delmarva Peninsula.

Indeed, these are turbulent times for those who manage any lands, forest or otherwise. Environmentalists and natural resources managers increasingly link land use to water quality. They implicate runoff from farms, development and timbering in the decline of Chesapeake fisheries; and they back measures to halt continuing losses of the woods and wetlands that buffer waterways from pollution and harbor endangered plants and animals.

At the same time there is a swelling wave of opposition across the nation to more public say over land use. It comes from "private property rights" activists, who are strongest in rural areas like the Eastern Shore. They include small landowners, developers, builders, farmers -- also timber and mining and off-road-vehicle interests.

Where do the private rights of land use end and public obligations for environmental protection begin? With anti-environmentalism at a modern-day high in the 104th Congress, common ground is not in sight.

Which brings us back to Tom Tyler and his woods, and to some hope. The Dorchester County native, 53, is a regional forest manager for the Woodlands Division of Chesapeake Forest Products, which is part of the Virginia-based Chesapeake Corp., a Fortune 500, paper-and-packaging giant. To get pulpwood and timber, Chesapeake owns and manages about 330,000 acres -- some 500 square miles -- mostly in the drainage basin of the bay and its tributary rivers. Baltimore City, by comparison, covers about 78 square miles; Baltimore County about 600.

'A first-class operation'

The company's property on Delmarva -- 80,000 acres, three-quarters of that in Maryland -- makes it the Shore's largest private landholder. Tom Tyler would like to convince you, tree hugger or otherwise, that the land could not be in better hands.

First stop is a forest dominated by loblolly pine, between Salisbury and Ocean City, in the headwaters drainage of the Pocomoke River. Mr. Tyler points to where heavy oaken "mats," each 10-by-14 feet and capable of supporting 80,000 pounds, have been placed at the entrance of a logging road. They let heavy equipment roll across low areas without eroding soil into wetlands. Each one costs $128, and Chesapeake has bought about a million dollars worth of them in the last few years. None of this is required by law, Mr. Tyler says; rather it is part of his company's commitment to "a first-class operation -- from our loggers, to our roads, to getting all our permits."

"Look," he says, "we were environmentally sensitive at Chesapeake a long time before it began to get chic. Because we were already doing it, it flat-out offended me when some of these environmental rules and regulations [regarding forestry practices] came out; and yes, some of it was brought on by the way the damn idiots in our own industry operate." Mr. Tyler talks fast for an Eastern Shoreman, with a passion that is never far beneath the surface. Later on, he mentions he has been taking a course at a local college -- on "how to channel your anger."

The forest here is being thinned, to enhance growth of the best trees, which will be cut decades from now. If you expect to see hordes of sturdy, sweaty men with chain saws, you would be disappointed. "This is the future of forestry," Mr. Tyler says.

So quiet inside

The whole job today consists of a single man, seated in the heated, air-conditioned cab of a machine the size of a large tractor. It is so quiet inside, you can hear the computer-linked keyboard click beneath the operator's fingers. He controls twin pincers, large enough to encircle a couple of people, that extend from the machine's long, articulated arm. They can grasp anything from saplings to mature trees 50 feet or more in height and 20 inches in diameter. A saw extending below the pincers slices through the tree's base as if it were cheese. Rotating drums strip away the limbs and, simultaneously, the tree is sawed into logs, in lengths determined by the on-board computer -- long for the lumber and short for pulpwood.

Less than a minute after the huge pincers embrace a living tree, it is reduced to a neat stack of sized wood.

The so-called "green machine," Mr. Tyler says, moves on low-pressure tires, and makes its own roadway, laying down mats of springy boughs and small trees it cuts as it moves through the forest. This minimizes soil erosion and compaction. Leaving all the limbs and vines in the forest minimizes the loss of soil nutrients vital for sustained tree production.

The next stop is nearly an hour away, and it seems as if we are never far from Chesapeake Corp. lands on the trip. Virtually all the company's woodlands are posted with the "Keep Out" signs of hunting clubs. The company rents its timberlands on the Shore alone to 273 different gun clubs, mostly from the Baltimore metropolitan area. At a rental of $3 an acre and up, this brings in close to a quarter-million dollars annually, "enough to pay our property taxes," Mr. Tyler says. More private landowners should think this way, he says: "keeping land profitably in timber by thinking of it as more than timber . . . charging people from the city to camp and hike and fish and hunt and enjoy clean-smelling air."

'Perception is everything'

We come to one of Chesapeake's clear-cuts. It will be replanted, but the pine seedlings are not in yet. On acre after acre, all but a few trees have been leveled, leaving a broken, browning understory, furrowed earth and bulldozed windrows of stumps and decaying logs. "We're not ashamed of this a bit," Mr. Tyler says, but to the public, "it just smacks them in the face."

"Years ago, the forest industry could say, 'the hell with you'; but ,, these days, public perception is everything."

So, at many of its logging sites, as here, the company tells its workers to leave visual buffers of forest between public roadways and clear-cuts. Chesapeake limits the size of clear-cuts and allows them time to "green up" before starting in on adjacent areas. It frequently chooses not to harvest as close to bay and river shorelines as laws allow; and it is working with other companies, in Maryland and nationally, to upgrade the training of logging contractors and develop more environmentally sensitive harvesting techniques.

The strategy is not simply altruistic. To the extent that the industry is seen as adequately policing itself, it will have a better chance of avoiding more government regulations, Mr. Tyler says. So he is not overjoyed, later in the day, when his pickup truck rounds a curve on a lovely rural road and comes smack up against a scene of devastation -- a large clear-cut with no buffers, deeply rutted soils with pools of stagnant water, and discarded fuel drums and other trash left near the road. Earlier, he had been talking about "pinhookers," a tradition that is probably as old as the Shore, he says. "Independents come into an area with maybe $15,000 in cash, buy the trees from a private owner on the spot, log it with very few controls and they're out and gone in two or three days."

But this site is not the work of out-of-state pinhookers, it turns out. An established logging company from right here on the Shore did it. (Large as Chesapeake is, it accounts for less than a tenth of the Shore's private and commercial timberlands.)

Industry initiatives

What went on here? You ask Mr. Tyler, who is visibly angry. "What happened? Well, I think what happened is greed; I think what happened is stupidity." He says he believes that industry initiatives, such as creating a "master logger" certification in Maryland, will end up effectively blackballing shoddy practitioners in most cases; "but for a few, it's going to take the law and more enforcement, and that's just how it's going to be."

If you want to really get Tom Tyler excited, however, get him to show you what Chesapeake does not cut: a 4,000-acre hardwood forest on Pocomoke River bottom land, with huge old cypress, owned by the corporation for 40 years, but never touched. "We could get the cypress out, and some pulpwood, but it would be a lot of trouble, with the wetlands, and it's really not in our timber plans." He estimates that as much as 30,000 acres of Chesapeake's total forest holdings are in "environmentally sensitive" categories, and unlikely to ever be in timber production.

Then, there is Island Pond, Mr. Tyler's pride and joy, only a few minutes from his home. It may be one of the most beautiful spots in Maryland, emerging from the topographic breakpoint where Dorchester County's wooded uplands fall away into the limitless salt marshes of Elliott's Island, between Fishing Bay and the Nanticoke River. Broad reaches of black water braid through islands of great old pines and hardwoods, with no sign of human habitation as far as the eye can see. It is a waterfowl and wading bird paradise, supporting some of the lushest growths of aquatic vegetation remaining in the Maryland part of the Chesapeake. The surrounding natural lands buffer it so well from sediment that it has a surprisingly firm bottom, belying its swampy character. "This is what I mean when I talk about stewardship," Mr. Tyler says.

Getting good marks

On its commercial timberlands, Chesapeake gets good marks from federal and state wildlife managers, who say the company has been working with them to protect the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel. Chesapeake also gives government biologists access to its lands, to identify any endangered plants or animals, and any sensitive wetlands or other habitats that support those species. Officials of the company "have, on the whole, been more cooperative than others in their industry," says Janet McKegg, director of Maryland's Natural Heritage Program, which protects endangered plants and animals. "For a company out there to make a profit, they do what they can to protect the environment."

Nonetheless, Chesapeake and others in the industry aren't in the business of operating nature parks, as Ms. McKegg points out. Most trees on timberlands seldom get older than 45-50 years, and first cuts for thinning are usually made at 20 years or less. Under such management, the exceptional habitats and aesthetics of undisturbed, mature forests, with trees a century or more old, never come close to developing.

Surveys so far have turned up few rare and endangered species on production timberlands. It is theoretically possible to manage such woodlands for a more "natural" regime, with selective cutting, longer times between cuts, and a larger range of diversity in tree size and species, says Larry Walton, Mr. Tyler's supervisor and Chesapeake's top manager for the 80,000 forest acres on Delmarva. But old trees are prime candidates for disease and lightning strikes; and such management would be too labor-intensive to be economic, Mr. Walton says.

In addition, there is another aspect to a company like Chesapeake, cautions David Sutherland of the Conservation Fund, a national nonprofit group that has protected nearly 900,000 acres of natural lands since 1985. "I love what Tom Tyler and Larry Walton are doing; but you can't just look at the green side of Chesapeake," he says.

A crop of homesites

He means Delmarva Properties, a wholly owned subsidiary created in 1983 to begin marketing and developing lands no longer "strategic" to the forestry operation -- meaning acreage on which Chesapeake could make more from a final crop of homesites than from trees. Delmarva to date has developed some 10,000 acres, working mostly in Virginia. Other projects, however, include one of 560 homes on 482 acres on the Nanticoke River in Delaware, just above the Maryland line, and 117 homesites on 600 acres in St. Mary's County. Still another division of the parent corporation, known as Stonehouse, is developing 7,600 acres near Williamsburg, Va.

Most of the development concentrates on waterfront forest land, precisely the areas environmentalists and natural resources managers consider most critical for water quality and wildlife habitat.

The Conservation Fund has acquired several hundred acres of Chesapeake Corp. forestland around Dorchester County's Blackwater River; but other, larger negotiations with Delmarva Properties recently broke off. Mr. Sutherland said he feels the development company was simply using his group to test the market before offering the lands privately to commercial interests. (Mr. Sutherland simply didn't meet Delmarva's price, says Charlie Kerns, an official of the company. Delmarva is negotiating to sell a land package, totaling 10,000 acres, to South Carolina investors for everything from developments to hunting preserves.)

Pellets from a shotgun

"You just need to realize that while part of Chesapeake may be very much concerned about maintaining forests, another part of them is driven absolutely by [land] sales," Mr. Sutherland says.

Much the same thoughts seem on Mr. Tyler's mind on a day when he pulls his pickup into a dense forest along a tributary of the Nanticoke River, which drains a substantial portion of Maryland's middle shore and lower Delaware. By Baltimore-area standards, no place in this region is heavily developed, but more and more new-home and house-trailer sites are being gouged out of the woods.

Though the counties here all have charts showing neatly planned "growth areas," what is actually occurring appears to have no more focus than the pellets scattered from a shotgun blast. "It's a cancer," Mr. Tyler mutters. "Everywhere our property ends, [development] begins." A short walk brings us to a high, shady bluff, overlooking pristine, wooded waterfront on both sides, upriver and down, as far as one can see. Miles and miles of still-unspoiled shoreline are a major reason the Nanticoke remains one of the Chesapeake Bay's finest and cleanest

tributaries; so fine that the Maryland chapter of the Nature Conservancy, a national environmental organization, has singled out the Nanticoke for a "Last Great Places" preservation campaign and is well on the way to raising $10 million.

Preventive medicine

Half a dozen other groups, from local citizens in both Delaware and Maryland, to the U.S. Park Service, the Conservation Fund and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, have also made the Nanticoke a major focus of their efforts in the last few years. Such preventive medicine for an unspoiled river is almost unprecedented in this region, environmentalists say; the practice has been to wait until expensive restoration measures are needed.

And the Chesapeake Corp., which owns blocks of forest along the river so large they can be identified from satellite photos, is obviously one key to the Nanticoke's future. Around where we're enjoying the view now, Mr. Tyler says, is somewhat marginal soil for growing timber. "I'm sure our real estate division [Delmarva] has dreams of honeysuckle and waterfront lots here. I don't think that will happen as long as Larry Walton draws a breath and retains his job; but in the end we decide things as a team, and we're a stock company and have a responsibility to our shareholders."

"Lands like those," Mr. Walton is saying later, "the company says: 'Use 'em or lose 'em.' Delmarva does a good job with their developments, but I hate to see it." He and Mr. Tyler, he says, have been making every attempt to tie Chesapeake's extensive holdings along the Nanticoke into the programs of environmentalists. So it is that Mr. Tyler, who regards the Nanticoke as part of his lifelong stamping grounds, spends considerable time these days enthusiastically laying out canoeing and nature trails along the river, providing camp sites for Bay Foundation educators, lining up heavy equipment for river cleanups, even helping organize a festival for next spring that will be dedicated to restoring the river's once-mighty runs of spawning shad.

A fragile alliance

If this has been a change for Chesapeake's Mr. Tyler, who says he once "swore I'd never join an environmental group," it has also been an education for environmentalists. Initially, the Friends of the Nanticoke, a local citizens' group, wanted to have the National Park Service seek to designate the river "wild and scenic." This move would have been more symbolic than substantive; but to many landowners and Eastern Shore natives along the Nanticoke, including Mr. Tyler and the timber companies, it seemed a prelude to "locking up" the region as a national park.

For a time, the issue threatened to destroy the fragile alliance built around concern for the river. "Oh, my juices were flowing over that 'wild and scenic,' " Mr. Tyler says, recalling that an ad hoc committee of farmers, timber men and other landowners he had formed was ready to revolt. "Preserve the river? Of course," he says; "but preserve it for who . . . a lot of people's lives depend on commerce that is based on natural resources, and somehow, we've got to be able to protect that and the river."

The Friends of the Nanticoke finally abandoned any mention of a "wild and scenic" designation. Given the growing threats from sprawl development, several environmentalists said that farming and forestry were more their allies than enemies. "In retrospect, I think Tom's landowners group was a good thing; it ended up bringing us together more," says Charlie Cipolla, a Salisbury State University sociology professor who is the former president of Friends of the Nanticoke.

No one thinks the current situation on the Nanticoke addresses all the threats to the river, but the level of cooperation among locals, big landowners and environmentalists is virtually unprecedented in the region, and a sharp contrast to the bitterness that exists nationally between nature groups and landowners' organizations.

Just one thread

"It's mind-boggling how many visions there are right now for the river and the land," Mr. Tyler is saying. As he speaks, the small plane we are riding in banks, so that we can see, in the clear spring air, what seems to be half the Eastern Shore spread out a few thousand feet below.

The Nanticoke is just one thread in this water-land. The forest below is indeed a big woods, mostly in private ownership. But just look at all who are interested in its future these days. Mr. Tyler ticks them off: the Conservation Fund, the Nature Conservancy, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, three citizens' groups in two states, the U.S. Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; natural resources departments in Delaware and Maryland; canoe clubs -- these are just the ones he knows about.

"It's taken change for all of us, and it'll take more," he says. "But if we don't pull together, it's the river that will change, and I don't want to see that happen."

TOM HORTON is The Sun's environmental columnist.

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