Some Virginians who want to protect their forests and local environment without having to give up woodland income may soon have an alternative: They can put their trees in the bank.

As part of a pilot project that may have nationwide implications, The Nature Conservancy is developing a “Timber Bank” in the Clinch River area of southwestern Virginia. The Clinch River contains one of the greatest collections of freshwater mussels in the world, many species of which are endangered.

The local forests help protect water quality, but are also an important part of the local economy.

In an effort to protect both, the bank would be set up as an independent institution where landowners can sign over management rights in exchange for a guaranteed annual payment. The payment would be about 3 percent to 5 percent of the total value of the timber on the property.

For example, a person with $100,000 of timber, at 5 percent, could get $5,000 a year by participating in the bank.

To make the payments, the bank would harvest timber, but it would be done selectively among all the trees it manages over thousands of acres. That, in effect, minimizes harvests in any single area, and allows sensitive areas, such as stream corridors and important habitats, to be protected from harvest altogether.

“It’s not like they’re coming in and locking up private land and putting a hit on the local economy,” said Jim Johnson, extension project leader for natural resources in Virginia Tech’s College of Forestry and Natural Resources, who is participating in the effort. “They will have to conduct harvests to generate the annuity payments and keep it going.”

To succeed, landowners have to decide that forgoing the potential of a quick profit though a large harvest all at once in exchange for a guaranteed annual payment is worth it. To some, that may be a drawback, Johnson said. On the other hand, he said, participating in the bank guarantees that — as harvests are spread among many landowners — a person will always have a large stand of trees on his or her property.

The bank is in the development stage. Johnson said the Conservancy is raising the roughly $2 million it needs for start-up costs.

Johnson and others have a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help provide land data needed by the bank, and to study its effectiveness — including the factors that make people choose to participate or not.

If successful, Johnson said the timber bank may be a useful model to provide an economic incentive to maintain forests, and a forest industry, in other rural areas.

“It very well may be a land conservation measure, unlike a conservation easement where you simply put the land in and prevent its development,” Johnson said. “This actually provides a stream of payments to the landowner as a financial incentive.”