Photograph by Jordan Arnold

Richard Schrimper stands in the middle of a cluster of hemlock trees on his Brown County property. As part of his involvement with The Nature Conservancy’s Forest Bank program, the trees will be protected from harvesting.

When he's not teaching a class, helping students during office hours, or spending time with his children, Richard Schrimper, a senior lecturer of accounting at IU, devotes his time to his true passion: the forests of Brown County. Having hiked in the woods there for over 25 years, the trees have secured a place in his heart.

With the acquisition of a new property in Brown County, Schrimper immersed himself in the breathtaking beauty of the forest and also secured some financial freedom. His trees earned him $78,500. The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a conservation organization that protects plants and animals, bought the rights to the trees on Schrimper's land.

"It was too good of a deal," Schrimper said. "I just couldn't pass it up."

The forests of Brown County are special not only because of their beauty, but also because they comprise one of the few remaining undisturbed forest blocks in the Midwest. The size and age of many trees in the forest make them ideal for harvesting, so property owners who would rather preserve than cut are left with a dilemma.

Organizations such as The Nature Conservancy attempt to make this decision easier for the property owners, by buying the rights to the timber to ensure the forests will be managed sustainably.

In Schrimper's case, the financial aspect was an added incentive to preserve the trees on his land. "One of the really cool twists of it is I took some of that money and got Lasik eye surgery," he said. "My trees paid for my eyesight, and I'm thankful for that every day."

Schrimper's involvement with TNC begins

Schrimper admired his property long before it was on the market. When the owner died, his widow decided to sell the land. Schrimper jumped at the opportunity, and he stood out among the many interested buyers because of a promise he gave her. "I knew that her husband worshiped the land," he said. "I think that was part of the convincing her to sell it to me rather than anyone else. There was a real promise I gave her that I would protect the land."

Shortly after purchasing the woods, Schrimper had a few business proposals he was considering investing in, but he needed capital that he didn't have. He realized that his trees presented an opportunity to obtain the needed cash, and so he called a consultant forester. "I knew deep in my heart that I could never do it, but as an informed business person, I needed to know all of the options and all of the variables," he said.

Photograph by Jordan Arnold

The hemlock trees on Schrimper’s property are unique in Brown County. Most have disappeared because they typically need a cooler climate.

Schrimper remembers the forester's expression when he walked the property. His eyes grew big when he saw the size and age of many of the trees. He offered $15,000 for a selective cut, but he also told Schrimper about the TNC's Forest Bank program. Schrimper thought it sounded too good to be true. His trees would remain untouched, and he would be awarded more than four times the amount he would get from harvesting the timber.

The monetary difference, according to Dan Shaver, the project director for TNC's Brown County Hills Project, was because TNC paid for all trees on the property that were 10 inches in diameter and greater, whereas the forester's offer was only for a small selection of bigger trees. "I got my long-term wish and kept my promise to the widow," Schrimper said. "Economically, it was a no brainer."

Why do the forests need to be protected?

According to Julie Kempf, a conservation coordinator with TNC, the organization's mission is to protect plants and animals by protecting the land they live on. Conserving the forests of Brown County is important because they comprise a unique, uninterrupted habitat for animals.

"We need to maintain the mosaic of forest communities," she said. "If we don't have the young forests, it's not a mosaic. We need the young forests, we need the middle-aged forests, and we need the old forests."

Rhonda Baird, director of the Indiana Forest Alliance, an environmental organization focused on stopping timber programs on public lands, agreed that maintaining the forests is critical. "I recognize that timber is an important part of our society and that private land owners need to make their own decisions," she said. "I can only hope their decisions will be sustainable and help society as a whole."

The need to protect Schrimper's property is augmented by a rare stand of hemlock trees. The eastern hemlock is a coniferous tree that is typically found in cool climates. In Brown County, most hemlocks have disappeared, but the species is sometimes found on steep, northern facing slopes. "The hemlocks are interesting because you don't see them too often in Indiana," said Kempf. "His are a remnant that didn't disappear over time. So it's a really unique part of the landscape."

The Forest Bank program protects forests

"I call myself a tree-hugging capitalist because I can truly appreciate the environmental side."- Richard Schrimper, IU Prorfessor, Brown County landowner

Schrimper recognizes that preserving the environment is crucial, but he also sees a need to provide incentives to landowners. "I call myself a tree-hugging capitalist because I can truly appreciate the environmental side," he said. "But we also are human beings that have lives to lead and an economy that has to grow. And that's just an ongoing battle."

The Forest Bank program was created to help fight this battle and aims to balance the environmental needs of a forest with the economic needs of private landowners. Under the program, TNC enters into conservation easements with property owners, essentially allowing it to buy certain rights that come with property ownership. The two most common rights that the organization buys are the development rights, which limit the owners' rights to develop the land, and the timber rights, which result in TNC's legal obligation to care for the forest.

Once a conservation easement is enacted, TNC develops a management plan based on the specific property, which outlines the best course of action. "We are a conservation organization, so we focus mainly on preserving the forest," said Kempf. "But sometimes, timber harvests are needed. Ultimately, we do what is best ecologically."

The future of the program

The Forest Bank is a pilot program for The Nature Conservancy. Shaver hopes it will be a conservation tool that is economically and environmentally sustainable.

Regardless of the path of the specific program, Schrimper is comforted by his property's future. "I was always concerned of what would happen upon my death to this property that I had promised to take care of, and The Nature Conservancy gave me that answer," he said "Nobody can do anything to the trees. Ever."

Jordan Arnold can be reached at .