New federal funding supports the protection of private forest lands threatened by development. Local communities will have access to funds, which allows them to make offers to land owners to buy the land and protect it. (Video: Assignment Earth)

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Narrator: For decades, conservation groups have been fighting a losing battle to conserve forests, whose watersheds provide two-thirds of the drinking water in the United States and habitat for many species on the brink of extinction.

Julie: Wildlife cannot survive just on the public lands we have. Half of our land in the lower 48 states is in private hands. Half of our forests is in private hands.

Narrator: According to the National Wildlife Federation, we are losing 1.5 million acres of forests to development each year. Like this subdivision on the edge of the Jefferson Memorial Forest in Louisville, Kentucky. But for conservationists, there is hope. The 2008 Federal Farm Bill includes a provision called the Community Forest and Open Spaces Program. It provides federal matching dollars to local communities and groups to buy forest land.

Lisa: This is an opportunity for us to be at the table with the developers and make the same kind of offers to landowners that developers could make.

Narrator: Lisa Hite handles acquisitions for the Jefferson Memorial Forest. Its 6,000 acres is fragmented. Her goal was to knit it back together one parcel at a time. She estimates that this new program could save 30,000 acres in the Louisville area.

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This notion of preserved civic open spaces is not new in America. Back in 1634, colonists established Boston Common. Cattle grazed on its 50 acres and farmers sold their produce there. But in Modern America, the shopping mall has supplanted these kind of open outdoor spaces. And if we have lost our connection to the great outdoors, the Community Forest Program may help to restore it.

Jed: We want kids, families, all Americans to have the most access to forests that we can. We think being in a forest is an enriching experience. And putting them in more communities and more places where people can have access to them, it’s gonna be very good for the country.

Narrator: Jed Daley for the Trust for Public Land lives in Vermont, where most of half the towns own forest. He was the architect of the Community Forest Program. Most community forests are small. The biggest town forest is in Minnesota, almost 900,000 acres, but that’s still less than half the size of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, which is managed on the federal level. But forest conservation is no longer just a federal job. It’s shifting towards saving small forests, close to where people live and work. It’s an old idea whose time may have come again. For Assignment Earth, this is Bruce Burkhardt.

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"Assignment Earth" features compelling video reports from the front lines of major environmental stories from around the globe. Topics include global warming, pollution, habitat destruction and endangered species.

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