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Where Conservation & the Marketplace Meet

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Concerned entrepreneur 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 followed:

"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 effect.

"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 wasn't fair.
"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 developed.

"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 Pennsylvania."

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 azjaffe@optonline.net.


   

 
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