Saving the Darkwoods

Canadian Geographic, 2011

The biggest private conservation land deal in Canadian history reveals a story of German royalty, rugged wilderness, pioneering forestry and a shroud of privacy


Few of the patrons passing through the ornate lobby of the Hotel Vancouver on the morning of April 28, 2006, would have paid any attention to the German noble sitting quietly amid the regal decor. After a long overnight flight from Europe, His Royal Highness Duke Friedrich von Württemberg waited patiently, legs crossed, on an upholstered couch. Flanking him were Wolfgang Feil, chief executive officer of the Württemberg business empire, and Christian Schadendorf, general manager of Pluto Darkwoods, the family’s Canadian forestry operation. The men were in Vancouver to sell a little bit of real estate: 55,000 hectares of rugged wilderness straddling the spine of British Columbia’s southern Selkirk Mountains.

Duke Friedrich’s father, Duke Carl Herzog von Württemberg (henceforth referred to as “the Duke”), had bought the land nearly 40 years earlier. As is common among German estate holders, he considered the property an investment for future generations and, visiting every summer, grew deeply attached. But the sudden intersection of a spreading mounain pine beetle infestation, soaring forest fire threats and a massive property-tax increase forced the Duke’s hand. In poor health and no longer able to journey overseas, he made the difficult decision to sell.

The Duke sought a buyer who would treat the land with respect, but he also wanted fair market value for a property valued at around $100 million. The usual suspects were interested: forestry companies and land developers that would inevitably strip the timber value, then subdivide the hell out of the place. When the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) tendered a competitive offer, the Duke sent his eldest son to meet with NCC management to discuss NCC’s vision for the land and assess its ability to raise the substantial capital required.

As the Germans waited in the hotel lobby, Duke Friedrich’s eyes kept straying to the brass-clad revolving doors. Whenever ponytailed or Gore-Tex-clad men entered, he would lean toward Schadendorf and whisper, “Is this them?”

“You must understand,” explains Schadendorf later, “Duke Friedrich comes from an entirely different world.”

Raised in Altshausen Castle, Duke Friedrich is heir apparent to a dynasty that dates back to the 11th century. The German state of Baden-Württemberg bears the family name; part of its coat of arms appears in the Porsche logo (although there is no official tie between the two).

When Tom Swann and Jan Garnett finally arrived, NCC’s regional vice-presidents were dressed like bankers, not mountain climbers or logging-road blockaders. NCC is anything but a grassroots outfit. Nearly 50 years old, the private, non-profit organization employs almost 200 full-time staff, holds half a billion dollars in assets and manages more than 800,000 hectares of ecologically significant land.

Duke Friedrich rose and formally presented his business card. Plain white, it featured only his name. “There was something so elegant about the moment,” recalls Swann. “I keep that card on my desk as a memento.”

Before long, the group was laughing about Duke Friedrich’s conservationist stereotypes — the perfect icebreaker, says Swann. That helped; despite NCC’s initial 68-page proposal, the complex deal was far from done. For more than a year after the Vancouver meeting, book-sized legal documents, translated back and forth between German and English, circulated between Altshausen Castle, Pluto Darkwoods headquarters in Nelson, B.C., and law offices in Toronto and Victoria.

The purchase price was leagues beyond anything NCC had previously considered. “It felt as if it could slip away at any time,” says Swann. NCC sought partners, canvassed major donors and contemplated commercial ventures on the property, but nothing could bridge the gap. As the closing date loomed, Environment Canada’s Natural Areas Conservation Program bestowed $185 million to NCC, with $25 million going to Darkwoods. Other funds began to flow, but not nearly enough. So, for the first time in its history, NCC went to the bank and borrowed a large sum.

On July 9, 2008, then Environment Minister John Baird and NCC president John Lounds triumphantly announced the largest purchase of private land for conservation purposes in Canadian history. It sounded like a fairy-tale ending for the mysterious Darkwoods property. But, in reality, considering the deep-rooted challenges behind presiding over a landscape so vast, the story was only beginning to unfold…

Continues here.



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