Members of local conservancy groups are crossing their fingers that they can raise enough money by June 1 to secure a deal to buy an old-growth forest near Athens now owned by a logging company.

The deal to buy Hawk Woods, a 106-acre piece of land near Sells Park on the east side of Athens, has been tentatively agreed to by the logger, Dale Riddle Forest Products of Laurelville, Ohio. Riddle bought the land from its private owners in February intending to log its timber, including some trees that are up to 200 years old.

However, in an unusual agreement that is being hailed by local conservationists, Riddle has said it will sell the land for $550,000 to the Appalachian Ohio Alliance, if the group can raise $50,000 by June 1 to secure a purchase option. The rest of the money is expected to come from a grant through the Clean Ohio Conservation Fund, which by coincidence happens to have $700,000 in unexpended grant money left for the fiscal year.

"It's quite serendipitous," suggested Mary Reed, a member of the Athens Land Conservation's advisory committee.

Conservationists have been trying to obtain Hawk Woods for years. According to Ohio University professor Phil Cantino, chair of the Department of Environmental and Plant Biology, acquiring the woods was a top priority for the Ohio chapter of the Nature Conservancy in the 1980s, which offered to buy it in 1988. The owner declined to sell, however.

In the 1990s, the Ohio Division of Natural Resources' Division of Natural Areas and Preserves also had its eye on Hawk Woods. The property was among the division's top 20 priority sites to acquire in 1996.

Then in February 2002, after the property had passed to the heirs of the former owner, the then newly formed Athens Nature Conservancy offered to buy it if they could obtain grant funding, but were turned down.

After Riddle bought the site in February, it took a couple of months for the news to reach people who wanted to preserve the woods -- by which time trees had already been marked for cutting.

In April, a meeting was set up with two Riddle representatives, Athens Mayor Ric Abel and local conservationists about possibly buying the site from the company. On April 24, Riddle made its offer of sale for $550,000, providing a down payment of $50,000 was made by June 1, and the balance paid by the end of the year.

If the $50,000 can be raised, according to Reed, she feels confident that the grant money will come through -- though she acknowledges that there is a tiny but real possibility that the $50,000 earnest money could be lost.

"I'm 99 percent confident that the Clean Ohio money will come through," she declared. Reed added that if the purchase can be locked in, it will represent a very good deal for the city. Unofficial estimates of the value of the land and timber of Hawk Woods put its value at around $750,000, though to log the land would obviously cost Riddle some money. (A third-party appraisal is now underway.)

The conservation groups seeking to acquire the land have made clear, however, that they would not want to buy the site if its timber were harvested. Their main motivation is to preserve a piece of forest that is, for the area, remarkably unspoiled.

"It's a beautiful forest," Reed said. "We are not interested in buying it if it is logged."

Cantino agreed. "If it were logged, it would not return to its current state in probably 150 years," he estimated.

Though Hawk Woods doesn't have the kind of ancient trees in Belmont County's Dysart Woods, Cantino noted that it has been very little intruded upon. "There are no stumps, for example," he said. "There are no footpaths or tracks that have been made by people. You have this sense of something approaching wilderness." The woods is also remarkably free of invasive exotic species such as multiflora rose.

Part of the reason for this, the professor suggested, is that Hawk Woods has been in private hands for years, is not easily accessible, and is one of the area's better-kept secrets. "Most people don't (know about it), because it's privately owned, and it doesn't have road access. I just stumbled on it about 20 years ago."

Cantino suggested that a timber harvest would represent a serious loss. "(What's planned) isn't a clearcut, but it's pretty close," he said.

CURRENTLY EFFORTS TO RAISE money for the purchase option are focusing on getting donations. Reed said there are alternatives, including taking a loan from the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce's loan fund, and finding 20 people to put up $2,500 apiece to secure a loan from Hocking Valley Bank. Reed stressed, however, that the third option would be very much a last resort. "That's basically a backup plan," she said, with the main effort focused on raising donations.

If the Clean Ohio grant comes through, it will pay for 75 percent of the purchase price. However, Riddle could make an in-kind contribution of the timber on the site, so that $550,000 would work out to be 75 percent of the stated purchase price.

Tax-deductible donations can be mailed to the Appalachian Ohio Alliance, attention Hawk Woods, P.O. Box 1151, Logan, OH. 43138. Donations can also be made at the Athens Conservancy Web site, at http://athensconservancy.org/.

Reed noted that if someone went to the site, he or she would see old trees already blazed with blue paint, indicating they will be harvested if the deal falls through.

"They've already been marked for cut," she said. "It provides you with a real sense of urgency."

According to John Knouse, who is also involved with the campaign to buy Hawk Woods, $2,150 in donations are already in hand, with another $3,000 "supposedly on its way." The group has also applied for a $20,000 grant from the Athens Foundation.

Knouse noted that the Hawk Woods land, which borders the city of Athens along East State Street, Sells Park and Strouds Run State Park, will provide a large linked tract of green space for local residents.

Dick Harwood, vice president and part owner of the logging company, said he wanted to see the deal go through partly as a tribute to now-deceased company founder Dale Riddle. He described Riddle as "20 or 30 years ahead of his time in conservation and land use."

Harwood called the deal "an opportunity for us and the environmentalists to maybe work together a little bit... We didn't get into this business because we hate trees."

He praised Cantino and other conservationists, who he said "kind of told us what we had" in Hawk Woods, and also Riddle forester Rob Passic, who engineered the company's purchase of the land.

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