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June 9, 2006 4:19 pm

Rock “n” Roll and trees have a keyboardist in common

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Four months ago, Chuck Leavell stepped out in front of 1.5m people on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro and performed live with the world’s most famous rock and roll band. The free concert was one of the highlights of his 20-year career as keyboardist for the Rolling Stones. Although not an official band member, the 54-year-old American has become such a fixture that he helps choose the play list for concerts and sets the tempo on stage. He has also performed with Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Aretha Franklin.

But there is another side to Leavell’s life that could hardly be further removed from his exploits with Mick, Keith, Ron and Charlie. The week before the Rio concert he was at home in rural Georgia tending to his 2,000-acre tree farm. He has grown timber at Charlane Plantation, near Macon, since he and his wife, Rose Lane, inherited the land from her grandmother 25 years ago.

Instead of expensive cars and luxury homes he invests the wealth from his musical career in white oaks, black walnuts and loblolly pines. Many investors have come to appreciate the safe long-term returns offered by timber. But for Leavell, his small forest – which teems with quail, wild turkey, deer and even brown bears – is more a way of life than a livelihood. “There’s something about living with nature that helps you keep your priorities in order,” he says, sitting in the rustic-style living room of his wooden plantation home.

“You see the forest growing an inch at a time and it helps put the rock and roll lifestyle into perspective.” Putting down roots in the countryside is nothing new for a rock musician – all the Rolling Stones, for example, have sprawling country estates. But few get their hands as dirty as Leavell. Driving around the orange clay tracks that crisscross the plantation, he proudly points out trees that he and Rose Lane planted and charred earth where he has set off controlled fires to thin the undergrowth.

“There is nothing phony about his commitment,” says Larry Wiseman, pres­ident of the American Forest Foundation, which represents independent forest owners. “Whenever he is home, he works like any other tree farmer. I’ve called him at 6.30am and found him out on his tractor.”

Leavell’s passion for timber does not stop at the gates of Charlane. He has used his dash of celebrity to become an unofficial lobbyist for family-owned tree farmers in the US and sustainable forestry around the world. He has written a children’s book about trees, spoken at a White House conservation conference, testified before Congress, attended dinner with Prince Charles and sung the national anthem in front of President George W. Bush at a signing ceremony for forestry legislation.

While in Puerto Rico with the Rolling Stones recently, he spent the day before the concert with the island’s secretary of natural resources to discuss forest restoration projects. He was rewarded for his efforts in 1999 with the title National Tree Farmer of the Year.

Mick Jagger and the band were initially bemused by their keyboardist’s extra-curricular activities but Leavell says they have grown to respect his enthusiasm. He has become a source of information for green-fingered members of the band’s entourage, recently taking a call from a staff member in the UK worried about a sickly tree in his garden. “The tree survived,” he says.

It was only after inheriting the plantation in 1981 that Leavell discovered the joy of forestry. He needed to find a use for the land that would earn enough to pay a big inheritance tax bill but also allow him to continue playing music. “Farming was out because we couldn’t afford to pay anyone to run the place when I was touring,” he says. “Suddenly a lightbulb went off in my head: forestry.”

He enrolled on a correspondence course about trees while touring with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, a blues-rock band, shortly before being hired by the Rolling Stones. “People would scratch their heads when they saw me reading this stuff on the tour bus,” he says. “But I’m a child of the 60s, so the idea of getting close to nature and doing something good for the environment was appealing.”

That was the early 1980s, when rock stars were still supposed to trash hotel rooms and take drugs in their spare time. Two decades later, Leavell is no longer such an odd man out. So many green-minded celebrities now profess interest in trees that it is tempting to declare forestry the new rock and roll. Leonardo DiCaprio, the Hollywood actor, and pop acts including Coldplay, Dido and Mel C, a former Spice Girl, are among those backing a campaign to tackle climate change by planting trees. Coldplay paid for 10,000 mango trees in India to offset the carbon emissions generated by the making of their CDs and DiCaprio has his own forest in Mexico.

Leavell applauds their embrace of the cause. But he is sceptical about celebrities whose commitment to the environment can be measured by the length of the photo opportunity. “I wanted to be someone who was really connected to the land rather than just talking about it,” he says. While recent reports suggest most of Coldplay’s mango trees have died from drought and neglect, Leavell is in it for the long term. The first pines that he and Rose Lane planted in 1985 are still several years from maturity. Some trees are logged early to sell for pulp. But most will not produce a dividend until he reaches his 70s.

The crop promises him a steady income even after the Rolling Stones retire. But he says his main wish is to leave a healthy plantation for his two daughters and newly born grandson. “I can create a legacy through music that is going to survive long after I’m gone but I can create another legacy through trees,” he says. “Rose Lane’s family has farmed here for more than 200 years. It’s about preserving our family’s heritage.”

Most species at Charlane reach maturity within 35 years, their growth aided by Georgia’s climate. A “stand” of trees is thinned after about 16 years to sell juvenile wood for pulp but by far the most valuable harvest comes from fully grown trees for lumber. For those patient enough to wait, the returns are appealing. It costs $90-$250 to plant an acre of trees. Once harvested, that acre would typically yield $3,500-$4,000. “It’s not a piece of paper you put in a safety deposit box,” says Leavell. “It’s an investment you see growing every day. It’s more fun than owning stocks and it is better for the environment.”

Analysts say timber prices should remain robust as growth in the global economy increases demand for wood. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts that consumption of industrial roundwood will rise by 60 per cent over the next 25 years, with much of the increase coming from China. “Wood derivatives are used in 5,000 different products from toothpaste and shampoo to salad dressing,” says Leavell. “What other product is so versatile and indispensable yet entirely renewable?”

But there are risks. Imports of cheap timber from low-cost South American countries such as Brazil and Venezuela are putting pressure on prices; the shift in manufacturing of wood-based products, such as furniture, away from the US is weakening domestic demand; slowdown in the US housing market threatens to soften sales of wooden building material; and consolidation in the forest products industry is reducing the number of potential buyers of timber, making auctions less competitive.

Fires, disease and pests are other dangers, each with the potential to wipe out entire forests. The southern pine beetle, for example, has destroyed nearly $1bn of US timberland since the 1960s. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing family-owned tree farmers such as Leavell is the surge in land values after several years of strong growth in real estate prices.

This can be a blessing for those who sell to developers but for the industry as a whole the increasing cost of land makes investment in forestry less attractive. The situation is most acute in the US south-east, including Georgia, where population growth is pushing cities such as Atlanta further into surrounding forests.

Overall, the US has kept its acreage of forestland stable for the past 100 years but small family-owned tree farms, which face the greatest pressure to sell, are disappearing at a rate of 2m acres a year. Leavell says he is no fan of subsidies but believes more government support is needed to keep small tree farms viable, pointing out that forestry receives only 0.6 per cent of US funding for agriculture.

“We are not being paid properly for the services we provide to society,” he says. “As well as producing wood, forests provide habitat for wildlife and help produce clean air and water. None of this is reflected in the price we are paid for wood.”

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