Up a Tree
Feronia Forests capitalizes on sustainable woodlands
In 2012, while a global financial crisis loomed, the enterprising Paolo and Valentina Cugnasca, a father-daughter team who run New York City–based Emcor Securities, Inc., found themselves searching for more sustainable and safer investment opportunities for their clientele in a highly volatile market.
It was an era when the Enrons and Bernie Madoffs of the world had made infamous headlines, and, Paolo says, “We had to find alternatives for investing our clients’ money, and we began looking at timberland.”
Indeed, timberland would return a profitable margin, but those returns would come at the expense of trees over a century old. Once they were cut, the land would hold little value to investors until the real estate was sold. The Cugnascas wanted to invest in something more eco-friendly. What they found was a way to derive revenue from forests without cutting down the trees.
Actually, Valentina found the way while researching her dissertation titled “Tree-Hugging Capitalism” at the Presidio School of Management in San Francisco. “It began as a way to appease the hippie in me and make it reconcile with the fact that I do believe in capitalism, and I believe that many environmental issues can be solved by using a business model,” Valentina explains. “I thought if we could make a business using this model, think of everything it will settle and help us figure out in handling those issues.”
The first step to testing this new model was establishing Feronia Forests, LLC—a nonprofit that acquires and sustainably manages natural-forest properties in the United States. Its mission is to cultivate healthy, resilient forests and conserve them for future generations. The company purchased a pilot site located on 1,700 acres of land off of Brodie Mountain Road in Lanesborough and Hancock.
Nine hundred acres of that property currently boast 110 acres of maple-tree sap lines; 90 acres of “unusable forest” on which a proposed solar-panel field will be built; and the newly opened Ramblewild, an environmentally sustainable aerial adventure park (one of the largest of its kind) and education center, built into the trees.
Feronia Forests also acquired the 25-year lease for the windmills on the property of which there are still 19 years left, and plans to expand its sap operations for next year. All the above has been accomplished in compliance with the Forest Stewardship Council’s guidelines, a nonprofit that ensures the highest level of environmentally sound and socially beneficial forestry management.
Feronia Forests also owns the patent on Vertical Water, water (which is actually sap, before it is boiled down to make maple syrup) that maple trees filter naturally. It is sold onsite at Ramblewild and is new to the shelves of Guido’s Fresh Marketplace at its two Berkshire locations.
“These are other ways of using our resources responsibly without harming the trees, while making money, and providing conservation and sustainability education,” says Paolo.
Feronia Forests saw its first returns this spring at the test site with the harvesting of enough sap to produce 12,000 gallons of maple syrup. And the grand opening of Ramblewild began to pay back some of the $1-million-plus investment used to create the intricate, outdoor playground. But the real returns for the Cugnasca family came on June 3, when 75 Reid Middle School students descended upon Ramblewild to be the first in Berkshire County to test the new aerial park—one built without a nail, screw, or bolt.
Both Cugnascas admitted to getting emotional as kids began sharing their experiences. One girl told Valentina of a new friend made that day. “‘This is the best thing ever. We’ve been going to school together for six years and never talked. Now we are besties,’” Valentina recalls.
“Watching how they planned together and the teamwork and confidence building, especially in the young girls—it was an amazing sight,” Paolo adds. “That was the day we got our payback.”
Yet Ramblewild’s impact on the community goes far beyond the confidence building happening nearly 200 feet above the ground. Feronia Forests and Ramblewild hope to have a significant economic impact on the community as well. Already the site has provided jobs in its maple-syrup and forestry-management operations, and employs 20 people at Ramblewild who live within a 20-minute drive. As their vision grows, Valentina and Paolo hope the overall impact of what they are doing will, too.
Mary MacDonald, the principal at Mount Greylock Regional High School, whose school has partnered with Ramblewild in extending its education initiatives into the classroom, sees that impact carrying well into her students’ lives as successful adults.
“Because Feronia is involved with so many projects around sustainability, students can see alternative-energy projects, maple-sugaring, eco-tourism, and forest management in one place,” says MacDonald. “They learn about industries and jobs that are completely new to them. Subsequently, learning the science that frames these industries becomes immediately relevant when the real work is in front of you in your proverbial backyard.”