ALCS Marks Fifteen Years in Business
March 15, 2019
In early 2004, ALCS began its operation as an open-minded "we'll know it when we see it" search for good customer value and creative, conservation-minded real estate and land management. The opposite of a get-crazy-rich Wall Street firm, it seemed a pipe dream, the fusion of seemingly impossible ideas with hard-bitten finances. And yet, one tough recession and fifteen years and many projects later, here we are, operating strongly in the black, bringing good value to clients, and leaving a land and wildlife habitat conservation legacy behind that will long outlast any of us.
"Our small company has achieved pretty much all we originally set out to do, and like the kid who hits an impossible home run off a big slow pop fly ball, we are rounding the bases in disbelief and joy at our success," says Josh First, ALCS's founder.
"The old adage that encourages people to do what they love has proven true in my experience here with this small business, as it does with so many other small business owners across America, no matter what in particular they do," says First.
That said, risk taking and sacrifice are at the center of the ALCS business model. In addition to providing consulting services, ALCS continues to invest in real estate and timber management, both of which have the power to strongly and positively influence landscape-size environmental outcomes.
"All of our projects involve varying degrees of risk, without which it is hard to attain the reward. And sacrifice comes in many forms, notably the opportunity loss we willingly, purposefully embrace in order to conserve properties, instead of maximally developing them for maximum financial return," First says.
Balanced against the risk taking and sacrifice, over the years ALCS has also provided cutting-edge consulting services to a wide array of business sectors involved in real estate or environmental issues, either at their core or on their periphery.
"Once business owners and managers recognize the high value that can accrue from being a solid steward of natural resources, they get into it. Nothing makes me happier than to have a client eventually lecture me on the process and outcome of good stewardship. This is a beautiful thing, because environmental quality speaks deeply to all people, it is not difficult to do, and most of the time it is a good money maker for businesses."
"In 1991 I began my career at the US EPA in Washington, DC, thinking that was going to help protect the environment, and yet in 1998 I left the agency, disillusioned, because I felt like I had no direct impact on environmental quality. Now I can tell you that any one of ALCS's projects has more tangible, more meaningful, more real-world conservation results than all the years combined I spent at EPA pushing paper," says First.
One example is how many of ALCS's aggressive forest management projects end up inspiring and spurring adjoining and nearby landowners to join in the same kind of habitat-enhancing activity. Many birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals require significant habitat disturbance and young, new forests in order to thrive. And yet high-graded forests, usually "select cut" which severely damages the forest, are how most private land is managed. High-graded forests are ecologically sterile places, and though a mature woods full of green is a mysterious and attractive place, the truth is that only in modern times do we place the appearance of a mature forest over the actual functioning of a healthy forest. A high-graded private forest full of red maple and black birch has almost zero habitat function, and in fact it also has zero timber product function now and for the distant future, either. 'Select' cuts and diameter-limit harvests are the antithesis of good forestry, and ALCS finds itself time and again cleaning up past high grading problems inflicted by cut-and-run timber management practices. Usually, aggressive forest management that 'sets the clock back to zero' is needed to allow the native forest to overcome the presence of overabundant red maple and black birch.
"Cut the worst-first - the number one principle of proper timber management - was taught to me by Larry Schaefer of Deposit, New York, a long time ago. It is the hardest concept to implement, though, because it often involves low-value timber stand improvement cuts and forgoing the biggest payoff from a timber sale, in favor of letting the forest's best and most valuable trees grow some more. Instead, landowners often sell their biggest, best trees before they are prime, and leave the runts, the poorest specimens, the least valuable trees, like red maple and black birch, to dominate their forest," says First.
The correct management of a mature forest is to take the worst first, or the worst with the best, when the best trees are ready to be harvested, also leaving sufficient seed trees to help naturally replant the forest. Though the right thing to do, this aggressive action can leave forest owners slack jawed at the rough appearance of what had been a beautiful mature forest.
"Yes, even-aged, aggressive forest management almost always looks terrible, it really does, there is no getting around it, but the wide array of native wildlife that you are helping, as well as the robust regeneration of native hardwood forests it provides, is truly a gift to future generations of animals and people alike. We are certainly not alone in pointing out this fact," says First, who lists Audubon, the American Bird Conservancy, Ruffed Grouse Society, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources, and other national and international conservation groups who advocate for and themselves implement significant forest disturbances for the sake of migratory neotropical songbirds, woodcock, whippoorwills, and other ever-rarer birds.
"Without opening up the forest canopy - I call it 'popping the top' - and just directly pouring in the life-giving sunlight onto the bare ground and thereby kick-starting the huge seed bank already naturally stored there in the soil and duff, there is no way to get back the native hardwood forests we have come to rely upon to feed all of our game and non-game wildlife," says First.
With most of the eastern USA forests severely clearcut between 1880 and 1900, before conservation and environmental laws, our forests eventually grew back and now mature, are timing out and naturally dying from old age. If landowners are smart, they are cutting their old forests for timber production. Either way, if landowners do not take their forests in a firm grip and manage them carefully and competently, a great deal of gains in wildlife and habitat health made over the past one hundred years will be lost.
"Change in life, dramatic change in our forests, is natural. Change is usually good, and not counting the increasing threat of invasive non-native plants and insects on our native forests, change is healthy. Trying to keep mature forests to the point where they are dying and crashing down around people's heads is a short-sighted waste of the resource and a missed educational opportunity," First says of ALCS' ongoing work to educate and train forest owners about proper forest management.
ALCS presently has one significant conservation property under contract and is courting another two.
"We hope to make our 15th year a good one in terms of land conservation. That milestone will leave a long legacy I can be proud of now. It is how I enjoy spending my limited time on this planet," First says.