The green carpet of forest draped over the mountains of Central Appalachia is deceptive, said Terry Cook, Tennessee state director for the Nature Conservancy.
"None of this property is pristine," he said, standing on a mountain roadside with a sweeping vista of the environmental group's new acquisition. "Every acre of it probably has had some past history" of logging, mining or agriculture.
The towns tucked between the mountains have earned their livelihoods from the land for centuries, since Europeans started passing through the nearby Cumberland Gap in the late 1700s.
Now the Nature Conservancy, one of the nation's largest environmental groups, is taking ownership of a swath of forest spanning more than 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) across Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.
As climate change tightens its grip, environmentalists see carbon-absorbing forests as one of the planet's best defenses.
But the Nature Conservancy does not plan to close the land to logging.
Increasingly, conservation groups are embracing the concept of working lands, where human activity and wildlife protection coexist rather than conflict. They are pushing back against the conventional wisdom that conservation and economic growth are opposites.
And an influx of cash from California's carbon regulations is helping make larger conservation projects possible.
This is a big one. The purchase is on "a scale we've never attempted to do in the central Appalachians," Cook said.
These days in conservation, big is the way to go. Scientists have recognized that protecting small, fragmented patches of nature does not provide the same benefits as working across an entire landscape.
What happens in the mountains affects the valleys. Highland forests capture, clean and store water for ecosystems and communities below. Also, wildlife needs connected corridors to get around, especially as climate change pushes them out of their old habitats.
Not to mention, the more trees soaking up carbon dioxide, the better.
But nearly everywhere on Earth, people are part of the landscape, too. Their needs can't be ignored, said the Nature Conservancy's Central Appalachian Forest Manager Stuart Hale.
In the state of Tennessee alone, the timber industry supports more than 100,000 jobs. And another 60,000 in neighboring Kentucky. That's "everybody from the loggers in the woods who cut the trees down, to the truck drivers hauling [timber] to the sawmills, to the folks manufacturing at the sawmills, to the convenience store clerks that those guys stop and buy a soda pop from," Hale said. "It's a major part of the economy."
That's why, when the Conservancy bought the property, they did not turn it into a nature preserve, Cook added.
It's a good move, according to Senior Conservationist Spencer Meyer with the Highstead Foundation, a New England-based environmental nonprofit that is not involved with the project.
"Hungry people make lousy conservationists," Meyer said. "If there aren't jobs that still are relevant on the ground, then deals like this just don't work. They might work in the short term, but they'll collapse if they don't have strong local support."
Cash for carbon
Only part of the land will be logged. The nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council will certify that it's done with environmental and other safeguards.
And cutting down trees is just one way the forest can make money. Thanks to California's climate change regulations, forest owners can cash in on their trees' carbon-absorbing powers.
California industries have to pay for each ton of carbon dioxide they produce, or buy credits to soak it up elsewhere.
An expanse of forest this size is worth millions of tons of carbon credits.
At around $15 per ton on the California carbon market, Cook says that translates into tens of millions of dollars to buy land and keep it healthy for 100 years, as the contract requires.
Part of the money for the purchase also comes from foundation and private investors who will earn money from selling timber and future carbon credits. Hale noted that both the timber and the credits earn higher returns when the forest is healthy.
The carbon credits, community focus and landscape scale are not unique to this project. However, "this is probably the first time we've seen all of those pieces come together" at this scale, according to Meyer with the Highstead Foundation.
Meyer expects the project will demonstrate what he has found in research he recently co-authored: that protecting nature does not mean sacrificing jobs.
"At least in New England, we're seeing a small but important signal that conservation leads to job growth," he said.
That's good news for those hoping that preserving forests can help combat climate change without harming the economy.