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A vast tract of wilderness in southeastern British Columbia, acquired by a German aristocrat during the Cold War as a haven for his family, has become Canada's newest conservation reserve.

Darkwoods, a spectacular 55,000-hectare sweep of mountains, forest, streams and more than 50 lakes in the Kootenay region, has been bought for $125-million by Nature Conservancy Canada, with help from the federal government.

It is the largest purchase of private land for conservation purposes in Canadian history and was announced on Thursday after three years of delicate negotiations.

The land - prowled by 30 to 40 grizzly bears, wolf packs, moose and an endangered herd of mountain caribou - was bought by His Royal Highness Duke Carl Herzog von Wurttemberg 40 years ago, on the eve of the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia that left Europe shaken.

"The duke bought it in 1967 as a safe haven for his family. It was the height of the Cold War and the Russian tanks were rolling through Prague and it looked like Germany was not a safe place to stay. So he acquired the property as an escape for his family," said Christian Schadendorf, general manager of Darkwoods Forestry.

"Why did the duke decide to sell? He's over 70 years old now, the Cold War is history, it's safe to live in Germany for now and there are increasing risks and costs associated with climate change on the property," he said. "The beetle infestation has hit us hard, just like everywhere else in B.C., and there's way more frequent forest fires occurring … but the final straw was the regional district decided to increase property taxes by 35 per cent."

Mr. Schadendorf said the duke, 72, fell in love with the rugged landscape and visited the property once a year until no-smoking regulations put him off long-distance air travel.

The property, which lies on the west side of the south arm of Kootenay Lake, was part of a land grant to the Nelson & Fort Sheppard Railway in 1897. It went through several owners before the duke bought it and set up Darkwoods Forestry.

Although Darkwoods has been extensively logged, with some 55,000 cubic metres removed annually, forest crews have operated under strict instructions to "take care of the land" first.

As a result, Darkwoods has remained in remarkably good shape ecologically, with 50 per cent of the area still wilderness, virgin forests with trees more than 500 years old and a diversity of wildlife, some of which are remarkably unafraid of humans because there has been no hunting allowed for 40 years.

When it came time to sell, Mr. von Wurttemberg, whose family traces its roots back through generations of German royalty, instructed Mr. Schadendorf to make sure it stayed in one piece, went to a bidder who respected "the unique beauty of the forest," and that staff be offered work by the new owner.

Mr. Schadendorf, a forest economist who immigrated to Canada from Germany in 1994, and two professional foresters have been hired by Nature Conservancy Canada to help manage the land.

He said logging will continue but the focus will be on environmental management, not profit, and mostly will involve removing trees attacked by pine beetles.

Mr. Schadendorf said the land negotiations were delicate, in part because of the cultural challenge of getting a conservative German aristocrat to sit down at the table with a bunch of Canadian environmentalists.

He said that when they were waiting for Nature Conservancy Canada representatives to arrive for the first meeting, the duke turned to him whenever they saw someone with a ponytail or dreadlocks approaching, asking nervously: "Is that them?"

As it turned out, the Nature Conservancy Canada representatives arrived dressed professionally, with neat haircuts and a strong bid.

With his voice breaking, Mr. Schadendorf said he is glad the land is going to an owner who will respect it.

"Working on this land so many years, my colleagues and I are deeply attached to it. Seeing it now conserved, and spared from being turned into golf courses and tacky retirement homes, like the rest of rural B.C., makes me very happy," he said.

John Lounds, president and CEO of Nature Conservancy Canada, described the purchase of Darkwoods as "an initiative of global significance."

Mr. Lounds said the land, together with adjacent West Arm Provincial Park and the Midge Creek Wilderness Management Area, creates a protected area of more than 1,000 square kilometres between Nelson and Creston, in the heart of endangered mountain caribou range.

He said the land will provide "a vital connective corridor" for the South Selkirk caribou herd, which numbers just 46 animals, and for numerous other animals. The wetlands are used by an estimated 100,000 migratory birds.

Mr. Lounds said the deal cost about $125-million, of which $25-million was provided by the federal government and $65-million from private donations. Nature Conservancy Canada must now raise the balance of $35-million.

"Darkwoods is a treasure," federal Environment Minister John Baird said. "This is truly an incredible property."

Environmentalists hailed the announcement.

"That's a big chunk of land and it's very important range for caribou," said Anne Sherrod of the Valhalla Wilderness Society, which has long lobbied to protect mountain caribou throughout B.C.

"Fantastic," said Gwen Barlee, a director of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. "The Selkirk herd desperately needs this habitat."

Nature Conservancy Canada officials said Thursday it's not yet clear how the public will be given access to the land.