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The green issue

Speaking for the trees

A group of scientists and others believes 70 percent of New England can be protected as forestland – while still leaving room for development, farming, even logging. the key to making this happen? Hundreds of thousands of private landowners.

The sun rises over the Quabbin Reservoir (Globe photo / Dina Rudick) BIG PROMISE The sun rises over the Quabbin Reservoir, as viewed from New Salem. Forests like this offer multiple benefits – such as cleaning air and water, removing carbon, and recharging underground drinking-water supplies.
By Tom Horton
October 10, 2010

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David Foster, director of Harvard University’s 3,500-acre research forest in Petersham, pauses in the shade of a maple to explain a vision of New England’s future so green it would have shocked Thoreau. The lanky, athletic Foster, who tramps his woods almost daily, draws a graph of the region’s forest cover through the last 400 years. It slopes downward from Pilgrim times for more than two centuries, then, improbably – even as New England’s population triples – forestland throughout the region swells upward again for most of the last 150 years.

In the V of the graph, the nadir of the forest, Foster pencils a short line: “the entire life span of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862).” Big, wild animal sightings were absent from his rambles through the Massachusetts countryside, the author of Walden lamented. “I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed, and, as it were, emasculated country,” he wrote toward the end of his life. “Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature that I am conversant with?” “The progress of cultivation,” as deforestation was then called, had reduced tree cover across New England from most of the landscape to as low as 30 percent in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Forests were cleared for farms and cut for timber and for fuel – New England through the early 1800s needed the wood from more than a million acres a year on average just to heat its homes. To the early emigrants from the 10 percent-forested English landscape, the trees here seemed limitless.

Thoreau actually observed the first blushes of the green explosion to come, Foster says. The author coined the term “succession” to describe the reversion of old farm fields, first to pine, then to hardwoods. “But he could not have imagined that the landscape today would support more natural attributes and processes than at any time since before the American Revolution,” Foster says. Indeed, a hiker in woods a mere half-hour drive west of Boston might now step in scat deposited by herds of resident moose, or glimpse a black bear.

After Thoreau’s passing, farming moved west, coal replaced fuel wood, and replanting made timbering more sustainable, so that today forests have reclaimed nearly 80 percent of the land between Long Island Sound and Canada, with individual New England states ranging from 50 percent forestland in the south to closer to 90 percent in Maine. Forests cover about 60 percent of Massachusetts’s 5 million acres.

While this comeback has been remarkable, if Foster were to continue his graph, it would show that the great re-greening is slipping in every state of the region. The historic concentrating of people in cities and town centers, which allowed burgeoning forests and humanity to coexist, has been giving way to suburban sprawl and rural second-home development; the trend began in the last few decades in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut and more recently in other New England states. Even in Maine’s vast and depopulating North Woods, traditional timber company, paper mill, and family ownership has in large part shifted to pension funds and other investors not as wedded to long-term forestry. This new ownership “has created a lot of uncertainty – challenges as well as opportunities,” says University of Maine professor of forest policy Rob Lilieholm. “[They] see the land as potential profit, from everything from waterfront lots to credits for sequestering carbon and selling development rights to conservation groups.” In Massachusetts, sprawl has caused developed land to increase much faster than population in recent decades, according to Mass Audubon. This is being driven mostly by single-family homes built on lots measuring an acre or more, “a hugely inefficient way to use land,” says Heidi Ricci, a senior policy analyst with the Lincoln-based environmental group.

Last spring, looking to counter a second great wave of forest loss, Foster and 19 other forest ecologists and policy experts released “Wildlands and Woodlands: A Vision for the New England Landscape.” The 36-page report imagines New England half a century from now with more people and more development, but also with at least 70 percent of its 42 million acres permanently protected as forests. That would include some 3 million acres – so-called wildlands – to be left largely unmanaged by humans, becoming the kind of old growth that now covers only about 53,000 acres. Achieving the overall 30 million-acre conservation goal would mean tripling the current amount of forest off-limits to more development and doubling the rate at which forests are being protected. It would still leave enough land to accommodate twice New England’s present development and room enough for farming to expand from less than 7 percent of the landscape to more than 10 percent.

While its ambitions are large and deeply green, the report envisions anything but a “lock it up” approach. It calls for stepped-up use of most forests, including timbering. And it depends on hundreds of thousands of private landowners agreeing to forgo development on their properties, whether for financial or environmental or altruistic reasons. These owners, while individually holding small parcels, account for more than half of New England forests. The report also focuses new attention on forests as “green infrastructure,” supplying billions of dollars’ worth of services to the region, from protecting clean water to absorbing the carbon that would exacerbate climate change.

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n Massachusetts, local land trusts are already broadening their forestland protection ambitions. The Patrick administration has pledged to spend $50 million a year from environmental bonds for more land protection. Between 1999 and 2005, the state actually protected substantially more open space than it lost, about 110,000 acres versus 47,600 claimed by development, according to Mass Audubon’s recent “Losing Ground” study. Even so, it will take 85 years to meet the 50-year goals of the Wildlands and Woodlands report, the Audubon study concludes. “The environmental bond money is a significant help,” Ricci says, but adds that Massachusetts and other parts of New England suffer from weak and outdated land-use laws. “We’re still looking at dramatic losses,” she says.

The sprawl-driven erosion of forests now seen in all six states lends an urgency, says David Orwig, a Harvard Forest ecologist also involved in the Wildlands and Woodlands report, even more so because the losses this time are of a “harder,” more permanent nature. The original “soft” clearing for farms and fuel degraded the natural landscape but left it largely open, able to “succeed” back to forest at a later date. Today’s clearing for subdivisions, office complexes, big-box stores, parking lots, highways, and power lines will afford fewer such options.

Fortunately, many solutions already exist but just need to be ramped up, says Bill Labich, a regional conservationist with the Connecticut-based organization Highstead. “We already have the building blocks, the partnerships to achieve the vision of doubling the pace of forestland protection,” he says. Fulfilling the grand vision, Labich explains, is going to happen locally, the multimillion-acre forest goals stitched together from literally hundreds of thousands of little woodlands. That’s because in much of New England the bulk of the forest is owned by small, private landholders. In Massachusetts alone, more than 212,000 private landowners hold more than 75 percent of the state’s forests. Research shows the typical owners, whose median age is 56, love the privacy and beauty of their forest, don’t want to sell or develop, but haven’t planned to ensure it will remain woods forever.

“The social overlay on the New England forest – what doctors, teachers, mechanics, and all those other individual owners decide to do with their land – is more complex than timber values, zoning, and septic tank and road issues. Yet, it is what will most determine whether Wildlands and Woodlands works,” says Paul Catanzaro, a forest resources specialist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who was not an author of the report.

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uccess, Catanzaro says, begins over pie and coffee at the home of Tony and Ann Borton, retired on a small farm with 88 acres of forest that they have owned for 46 years in Conway in Western Massachusetts. A few years ago, with the help of the nonprofit Franklin Land Trust in Shelburne Falls, the Bortons hosted neighbors from along their rural road to discuss protecting their respective patches of forest and open land by placing them under a conservation restriction (also known as a conservation easement). Such restrictions, usually held by a private land trust or government agency, let owners keep their land but legally give up the right to develop it in return for a federal income tax break. “We have two grown kids who say they are never going to live here, and we couldn’t stand the idea of the land going to houses,” Ann Borton says. The flexibility of the easement also appealed. They retained the right to build on 5 acres “if the kids change their mind” and to maintain horse trails on the property. They also may sell the land or pass it on to heirs – but the development restrictions stay with the property forever. Neighbors also liked the idea, and five are now in the process of working out easements. The lands in question link up to a wildlife management area of several hundred acres – all told, the result will be a protected wildlife corridor of nearly 2,000 acres, some 3 square miles.

Other forest owners, like John Lochhead, retired on a 250-acre farm he bought more than 30 years ago in Conway, also want to keep their land green in perpetuity. “But this place is my insurance,” he says, “money I might need someday.” So Lochhead has joined with more than 70 other forestland owners in a promising kind of conservation deal known as “bundling” or “aggregation.” Keith Ross, a Landvest conservation consultant working with local land trusts, has agreements to pay Lochhead and the others to forgo their rights to develop. (This approach is appealing for landowners who don’t need or can’t use a federal income tax break.) The landowners agreed to payments based on 75 percent of their properties’ appraised value. They retain ownership of the land and can sell it or give it to heirs at any time, but again the development restrictions are permanent. Ross says he is on track to raise $21 million from private foundations, public agencies, and individuals by the end of 2011 to protect a total of 10,300 acres in the area. Aggregating small properties, he explains, dramatically lowers the per-acre cost of surveys, appraisals, and other legal expenses. Also, the chance to protect a sizable chunk of land appeals to far more and larger donors than would be interested in a small parcel or two. Ross is now working with $200,000 raised by the New England Forestry foundation to expand this pilot program to 10 to 15 separate aggregation projects from Connecticut to Maine.

Foster and his colleagues advocate that informal woodland councils, essentially partnerships of local landowners and organizations sharing information, consolidate their efforts into increasingly larger protection schemes. An example of a woodland council is the North Quabbin Regional Landscape Partnership, which works in 26 towns to protect forests extending outward from the Quabbin Reservoir, created in the 1930s for Eastern Massachusetts’s drinking-water supply. The group’s smaller projects are, in turn, linked to the Quabbin-to-Cardigan Partnership, which aims to protect a swath of unbroken forestland running north a hundred miles to New Hampshire’s Mount Cardigan, says Jay Rasku, coordinator of the North Quabbin group.

Ross says he’s seen “an incredible change in the way people in New England think of forests, a sea change from the 1970s. Where the money is available, there’s never a lack of landowners willing to protect their trees. Lately, many are seeing it as a way they can help fight global warming.” Indeed, research at the Harvard Forest has quantified a substantial benefit in that fight – the trees on the 3,500-acre plot absorb thousands of tons of carbon dioxide each year. Whether they are managed for timber or left alone as wildlands, “there are no lazy forests,” Ross says. Altogether, New England forests are performing billions of dollars’ worth of “ecosystem services,” he explains, cleaning air and water, removing carbon at a globally significant level, recharging underground drinking-water supplies, and supporting eco-tourism. The Wildlands and Woodlands report urges reimagining the landscape, to look at forests and their services as green infrastructure fully as worth investing in as Boston’s $15 billion Big Dig, advanced sewage treatment plants, or new bridges, schools, and rail networks.

Ross thinks “eventually the money we’re raising now from grants and private donors [to protect forests] will be seen as bridge loans, until society recognizes it needs to pay for these ecosystem services. These will create income streams longer and slower than real estate sales . . . but permanent. We have to take responsibility for these natural resources we’ve taken for granted.” Payments for forests’ absorption of carbon dioxide could become a reality if Congress passes a climate change bill. A report by the Conservation Fund and the USDA Forest Service recently placed a conservative value of $24 billion a year on the ecosystem services from a slightly smaller forest than New England’s, across the Chesapeake Bay watershed in the District of Columbia and parts of six states.

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or all its focus on keeping development out of the forests, the Wildlands and Woodlands report is emphatic about avoiding “the simplistic inclination to increase prohibitions on local management to protect nature, rather than . . . using much of [the forest].” More logging is encouraged in places like Massachusetts, which produces less than 6 percent of the wood it consumes, even though the volume of timber in its rapidly growing forests has doubled in recent decades. Foresters estimate the state could supply as much as 40 percent of its wood, enough to house 250,000 people a year.

Foster and his colleagues assert that sustainably managed woodlands, besides providing a much larger part of the region’s wood needs, could also generate more income, which would encourage landholders to maintain the trees. Ironically, Foster says, among many modern forest holders and the general population, “cutting is equated with degrading the forest.”

The exception would be the 3 million acres throughout New England that the report calls for setting aside as wildlands. There, “the best approach may be to do nothing other than watch, document, and learn.” They should be big areas, 5,000 acres, 20,000 acres, or even a million acres in the most northern spots, large enough to let disease, wind- and ice storms, fires, and other natural disturbances play out without damaging the overall integrity of the wildlands. These would most often be achieved by designating or adding to existing large acreages in public or other protected ownership. They could still be compatible with many human uses like hunting, bird-watching, and hiking.

Foster says he “continues to be amazed at the interest” that the Wildlands and Woodlands report has sparked. He expects “New England would still have many forests in 50 years” if the visions weren’t realized. “But it would not be the forest we should want, with a variety of special habitats, serving our needs for fiber and lumber, connected in big blocks and corridors for wildlife to roam – a true green infrastructure.”

Tom Horton is a freelance science writer in Maryland. He’s the author of eight books, and his work has appeared in Rolling Stone, National Geographic, and The New York Times. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.