As forest landowners shift their attention away from logging toward more lucrative—and destructive—uses such as suburban development, forest conservation is more crucial than ever. Historically, protecting woodlands has been a slow and difficult process: conservationists raised large sums of money, bought big tracts, and put them into public
ownership with strict rules against intrusions. Recently, however, a handful of organizations have found an easier way: buy the land with loans and repay them by turning the forest into a nonprofit business.

Since 2004 the Conservation Fund, based in Virginia, has purchased 40,000 acres of forest along California’s Mendocino Coast—with plans this year to buy 35,000 more—using a mixture of grants, donations and public loans. It is paying off the loans by selling companies the rights to selectively log the forest, which can actually help it grow. Last year the California-based Redwood Forest Foundation, Inc. (RFFI), adopted an even more businesslike approach: it purchased 50,635 acres of California forest for $65 million using a low-interest private loan. The organization plans to earn back money by logging and selling conservation easements.

These transactions have inspired others, suggesting the beginnings of a dramatic shift in conservation practice. The Oregon-based Deschutes Land Trust is working to secure 28,000 acres of Skyline Forest outside of Bend, Ore., and the Columbia Land Trust is negotiating to purchase land in Washington State. No one knows how successful the new approach will be; the pressure to earn back loan money could lead to difficult logging decisions. “We did it because we knew that we had to try it,” says Chris Kelly, California program director of the Conservation Fund, in part because raising donations is becoming harder. “The alternative was to sit back on our hands and let somebody else convert the land.”