The Nature Conservancy closed a deal on one of the largest land protection transactions in North Carolina’s history. The Conservancy purchased approximately 76,500 acres in 11 counties in the state’s Coastal Plain from International Paper, completing the transaction between the companies. Governor Easley announced the deal in March of this year.

The acreage-roughly the size of Raleigh-represents some of the most biologically significant of International Paper’s holdings in North Carolina.

Nearly 80 percent of the land will be transferred to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, adding almost 65,000 acres to the state’s Game Land program and opening these lands to a wide range of recreation opportunities. The remainder will be transferred to the Division of State Parks for an addition to Medoc Mountain State Park, to the Department of Cultural Resources for a Civil War site on the Roanoke River and to private conservation buyers.

“More than a year ago, International Paper Company very unexpectedly announced a divestiture of 6.8 million acres in the United States. Within days, The Nature Conservancy had started discussions with our state agency partners to see if we could take advantage of this extraordinary opportunity,” says Katherine Skinner, Executive Director of the Conservancy’s North Carolina Chapter. “The Nature Conservancy is uniquely positioned to act in just these kinds of circumstances, but we’d never taken on a project of this scale.”

The Nature Conservancy had been tracking the properties for many years and in some cases through multiple owners. When International Paper made its divestiture announcement, the Conservancy and its partners were able to clearly identify which tracks would leverage the most conservation impact and hold the most conservation value.

“We were willing and able to purchase the land in the time and at the price that International Paper required. At the same time we were negotiating the multi-state deal, we were also talking with various state agencies about their interest in acquiring these lands from The Nature Conservancy,” says Merrill Lynch, Assistant Director of Protection at the Conservancy. “Each of us in the partnership was able to work to our strength. Together, we’ve accomplished something wonderful for the people and the wildlife of North Carolina.”

The newly protected lands encompass four landscapes: the Upper Tar River (more than 21,800 acres); the Roanoke River (more than 21,200 acres); the Chowan River (more than 15,300 acres); and Juniper Creek (more than 18,600 acres). The 11 counties represented are Brunswick, Columbus, Gates, Hertford, Northampton, Halifax, Bertie, Franklin, Warren, Nash and Edgecombe.

While the sheer acreage is impressive, the strategic value is equally important. The lands are all in priority landscapes where the Conservancy and the state have worked for many years. They all connect to previously protected lands, so this purchase creates critical corridors for wildlife. Finally, because they were in private ownership, most of these lands had previously been unavailable to the general public. Now, the majority will be open for hunting, fishing, boating, hiking and other uses by the people of North Carolina.

This project highlights a growing trend across North America: the divestiture of huge tracts of land by timber companies and the rapid turn over of lands owned by a variety of large and small private owners. There may be only a small window of opportunity for states and conservation organizations to protect those lands.

“While the International Paper project is a very good thing and will ultimately move exceptional lands into public ownership, the vast majority of Southern forests remain in private hands. Unless steps are taken to provide incentives-and remove disincentives-for long-term private forest stewardship, the exceptional values of Southern forests will be lost,” says Bob Bendick, The Nature Conservancy’s Southern regional conservation director.

The closing is part of a 10-state deal between the Conservancy, International Paper and The Conservation Fund, spanning 218,000 acres in the Southeast. Closings in all states were completed this week.