The Nature Conservancy and Bethlehem Authority have teamed up in what is considered the largest private conservation deal in Pennsylvania history. In a recent agreement to protect 22,000 acres of forest in the watershed that provides drinking water to Bethlehem and surrounding communities, Bethlehem Authority became the first partner in The Nature Conservancy's Working Woodlands Program.
"The Bethlehem Authority Board was forward-thinking and saw The Nature Conservancy as a solid partner to give them the blueprint to [sustain management of] their property," said Joshua Parrish, director of land protection for The Nature Conservancy.
Established in December 2009, the Conservancy's Working Woodlands program employs a combination of working forest conservation easements, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) forest management certification and forest carbon payments supporters say will make conservation more attractive and relevant for private landowners.
"It's a forest conservation program that provides landowners a blueprint to sustainably harvest and manage their lands," said Parrish.
As part of the agreement, the Conservancy will obtain FSC certification for Authority lands that are located in the highlands of northeast Pennsylvania. Once certified, the Authority will have to satisfy 10 FSC principles and criteria that include managerial aspects as well as environmental and social requirements.
As an accountability measure, Parrish said the project will be audited every other year to ensure compliance with all of the requirements.
"What it means for Bethlehem Authority is that their water quality will be maintained and enhanced," Parrish said. "That's their No. 1 mission."
In addition to clean drinking water, the agreement will ensure protection of wildlife and public hiking trails and hunting on the Authority's lands located in the highlands of northeastern Pennsylvania.
Parrish said interest in the Working Woodlands program has been strong. He is currently working with 70 landowners of which 10 to 15 are seriously considering partnership.
"It's very exciting," he said. "We're hoping that we get a lot busier. That's a good problem to have in conservation."
For more information, visit www.nature.org.