mixes profit, conservation
Sunday, January 16, 2005
Josh First of Harrisburg claims he has created a first-of-its-kind -- a
for- profit, land-conservation firm that melds conservation goals with
existing market forces.
"We're the only such firm in the country right now," Josh says. He
tells of how growing up in State College set the stage for all that has
"The impact of the beautiful natural surroundings that I grew up in
directed me toward environmental protection, so I studied environmental
everything in college and graduate school. In 1991, I joined the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C.
"I was a federal regulator, specializing in national and international
agricultural policy, and watched some of EPA's unnecessary regulations
harm businesses with very little return in environmental quality, but
high cost. Every day I saw literally tons of paper related to
regulations entering and leaving EPA headquarters, and then, on my ride
to work, I saw farms and forests being cleared for new housing projects
and strip malls.
"And I wondered: I work at EPA, and I'm supposed to be protecting the
environment. These farms and forests sure look like the environment to
me, and I know that all the regulatory work I do doesn't have a lot of
"At the age of 33, in 1998, I left EPA and took an appointed executive
position at Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural
Resources in the Ridge administration. The accomplishment I feel best
about was getting DCNR's environmental education program, one of the
largest and best in the country, to develop and implement a land-use
environmental education curriculum across the state.
"In December 1999, I was at a holiday party with my boss, John Oliver,
DCNR's first secretary, and I asked him if he knew that the
Conservation Fund, which I had long admired, was looking for a
first-ever state director in Pennsylvania. He replied that he was not
ready to let me go, but for that job he would.
"The following week I walked into John's office to talk about something
and he hushed me and pointed to his speakerphone. He was negotiating my
pay and start date with the Conservation Fund's chairman and president.
The Conservation Fund buys a lot of land for public agencies, and I
could think of no better way to protect the environment than to buy it.
"In 2000, I opened the Conservation Fund's Pennsylvania office in
Harrisburg and spent 31/2 good years there. It was a demanding job that
required an enormous commitment in time and energy. I was involved in
many exciting projects, like purchasing the last privately owned piece
of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg National Military Park.
"I designed the site-protection plan for the Flight 93 crash site
national memorial and led the negotiations for the first acquisition
there -- 800 acres from PBS Coals and several others as well as a
donation of 160 acres from Consol.
"Despite the success, or maybe because of it, I burned out, probably
because I traveled more than three days a week and worked 12- to
16-hour days routinely. My three kids, now aged 9, 6 and 15 months, and
my wife of 12 years, Vivian, almost never saw me. My wife is a
full-time attorney and was also being the full-time caretaker. It
"In October 2003, I left the Conservation Fund and began implementing a
plan I had long thought about. Combining profit making with the public
good is not easy, but it can be done. Land trusts are perennially short
of cash, and it takes about a year for them to raise the funds for a
single land-acquisition project.
"In contrast, I created a model for buying land for profit, but with
open-space conservation goals. That way you operate within the normal
time frame of buying and selling private land, which can be just a few
months for a parcel ...
"Partnering with land trusts and private landowners, we use
conservation easements, which are perpetual deed restrictions that
eliminate or severely restrict development on a property. The land's
scenic and wildlife habitat values are forever protected. Our easements
do not allow any subdivision and allow only one residence and
associated outbuildings on each parcel.
"In January 2004, I purchased a 100-acre property at Bald Eagle State
Park, and subsequently purchased another four parcels there totaling
250 acres, all unzoned, adjacent to the park and at risk of being badly
"In March 2004, I officially launched my company, Appalachian Land
& Conservation Services Co., and we're getting the tangible
open-space conservation results that so many people want as land is
developed all around us, and especially many landowners who want to
protect their land in perpetuity.
"At Bald Eagle State Park we are protecting the park's views and
watershed, without costing the public a dime, and doing it much faster
than a land trust typically could. We are also doing the first
commercial forestry-related carbon sequestration credit project on the
same land, as well as a cutting-edge forest management project with the
Ruffed Grouse Society.
"Additionally, DCNR will be holding the conservation easements we will
be donating on the properties there, a first for that agency and,
therefore, a significant step toward land conservation in
Check out the Web site http://www.appalachianland.us
Azriela Jaffe writes about business and workplace issues. Her
syndicated column, Advice from A-Z, appears Thursdays in The
Patriot-News Business section. Her e-mail address is email@example.com