Experts offer hand to family forests
Aging owners ask help on land care
NORFOLK, Conn. - Dan Donahue likes to say that forestry is not rocket science. It is a lot more complicated.
"There's a lot about rocket science that's been figured out, but forests are subject to the intricate web of life: the interactions of plants, animals, sun, air, you name it," said Donahue, director of land protection at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in Monson, Mass.
That complexity is why he and other Northeast foresters are increasingly being called on by private landowners to help them manage their wooded acreage, commonly called family forests.
Many of the owners have civic motives, wanting to protect their forests and to ensure that invasive plant species and insects do not get a foothold. Others are curious about whether they can harvest timber without hurting their forests, tap their maples for sap, or improve the wildlife habitat for hunting and nature-watching.
The region's foresters are encouraging the interest with outreach programs, onsite assessment, and other services, all intended to make the satisfaction of preserving the land outweigh the financial lure of selling it to developers.
That's especially important in the Northeast, where the majority of forested land is held by private landowners, rather than by the state and federal governments. In much of New England, including Connecticut and Massachusetts, about 80 percent of forested land is in the hands of private owners. Nationally, it is just below 50 percent.
Donahue, who lives in Ashford, said many well-intentioned forest owners do not have the expertise to spot invasive plants and pests that could ravage their property and move on to nearby parcels.
In Connecticut, specialists with the state Department of Environmental Protection and the University of Connecticut's Cooperative Extension System work with owners of family forests to answer those questions every day.
Nearby, specialists from the University of Massachusetts have the same conversations with landowners throughout the Bay State. Many say they bought the land for privacy, recreation, and the aesthetics of nature, said Paul Catanzaro, a forest resources specialist at UMass-Amherst.
"They don't often think about their land and actively make plans for it, because on a day-to-day basis, it meets their needs," he said.
There's nothing wrong with that, he said, since even the wildest forests remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, absorb air pollutants, filter water runoff, and provide other benefits.
However, Catanzaro and others urge owners of family forests to make plans for what they want to happen to the land when it passes to future generations. That's especially important because the average age of forest landowners in the United States and New England is over 60, he said. Those who inherit the land will decide whether it remains forested or is developed, unless preservation plans are set in motion now.
"When that dust settles in 20 or 30 years, we'll see what we have left in terms of forests and what ecosystem benefits they still provide," Catanzaro said.
Some forest owners already are making those plans. Bill and Ann Rawstron, who own 101 acres in Northborough, Mass., have already placed more than half into a permanent conservation trust. They also hired a licensed forester a few years ago, whose "stewardship plan" for the entire property involved cutting some trees that were blocking sunlight and choking out new growth.
Now, the healthy older trees that were saved are part of a landscape blanketed with new growth, all of which is home to deer, beaver, river otters, fisher cats, coyotes and innumerable birds.
"We bought it because we really believed that . . . it should be open land for us and others to enjoy," Bill Rawstron said. ". . . We think it was the right thing to do."