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Conservationists' Coup

Forest products giant International Paper Co. has shifted its focus from forest management to paper and packaging production. This spring, as part of the move, the company began selling off the bulk of its massive forestland holdings; in four deals, the Connecticut-based company sold nearly 5.7 million acres nationwide.

Much of the land was purchased by other companies, including 140,000 acres in Florida bought by an investor group led by Resource Management Service. But environmental agencies and international nature conservationists also capitalized on the opportunity. International Paper's first deal was with two conservation groups, The Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund, which paid $300 million for 218,000 acres across 10 Southern states. That sale included 28,579 acres in northwest Florida -- some 22,000 acres in Santa Rosa County, with the rest in Escambia and Okaloosa counties.

The state's land acquisition program, Florida Forever, had "A''-listed much of the acreage for years for purchase; the conservation groups will now hold the land until the state budgets money to buy it.

The land encompasses 30 miles of rivers and streams, rare steephead ravines and historic longleaf pine habitat that is rapidly disappearing worldwide.

International Paper, meanwhile, will still own about 40,000 acres in Florida, with all but about 500 acres in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.