Kip Porter and his Belgian draft horses practice environmentally friendly logging.
Kip Porter and his Belgian draft horses practice environmentally friendly logging. (Courtesy of the Massachusetts Wood Cooperative)

One of the challenges facing industrialized nations in the 21st century is managing the balance between environmental stewardship and responsibly realizing the commercial potential of the natural world. While governments and major corporations continue to tackle this question, some experts tout grass-roots efforts as the way for every citizen to make a difference.

The recent decade-long lifespan of one such local endeavor, the Massachusetts Woodlands Cooperative (MWC), remains an encouraging sign for the future, and instructive for those wanting to pursue these initiatives.

In June 2001, a group of local land-owners based in and around the hilltowns -- from Pittsfield to Ashfield, Cummington, Shelburne and Warwick -- joined together, along with consulting foresters, sawmill perators and loggers, to harvest wood sustainably from their properties and sell it for use in local construction and restoration and other projects.

The co-op's products included lumber, flooring of ash, birch, cherry, red maple, red oak, and sugar maple, and additional items made by various cooperative members.

According to MWC archival documents, the co-op set out to "maintain the environment and character of Western Massachusetts through the protection, enhancement and careful economic development of one of the region's most plentiful resources, the forest."

Arthur Eve, one of the founding members and landowners, said the MWC was a business owned and controlled by members who used its services.

"People typically unite in a cooperative to get services otherwise not available, obtain quality supplies at the right time, gain access to markets and increase their bargaining power," Eve said. "When profits were generated from efficient operations or adding value to products, these earnings were returned to members in proportion to their use of the cooperative."

In the process, Eve continued, the cooperative would protect wetlands, enhance wildlife habitat, reverse the practice of high grading timber, invigorate the local economy and provide educational programs for its members.

The plan was ambitious, but all of the original landowners, which to start had contributed up to 3,000 acres, began the management of the MWC.

At its height, the MWC boasted 60 members and landowners with 12,000 managed acres of woodlands between them.

Kip Porter, an experienced horse logger and co-owner of O'Shea and Porter Draft Horses in Worthington, worked the MWC lands for several years and said there were many facets to the operation that were successful.

The single coalescing issue around the original organization was to become Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified. Eve said part of that also was FSC Chain-of-Custody (CoC) certification that monitors and verifies the path taken by raw materials from the forest to the consumer, including all successive stages of processing, transformation, manufacturing and distribution.

"FSC certification is the benchmark in environmental sustainability and social responsibility for forest management practices," Eve said. "From the customer's perspective, the FSC label represents a promise that the end product comes from a sustainably managed forest."

The co-op achieved FSC certification in 2003, and CoC validation in 2005, aiming to open new markets for its goods.

But in 2011, the MWC ceased all operations.

What happened?

Porter said the labor-intensive nature of its lofty aspirations collided with a downturn in the economy.

"There was a lot of good logging," Porter said. "These were land owners who were doing everything right, and set the bar very high in terms of the standards they wanted for producing sustainable end items. But many of the folks involved in the certification work were volunteers. At least from my perspective as a logger, once the economy went downhill in 2008, it became too much work for the return it generated."

Emily Boss, director of the Massachusetts Woodlands Institute, and formerly a forestry associate with the MWC, said that doing things the right way came with a price, but still one that no one regretted.

"Our goal was to provide a premium market for local, third-party certified wood products," Boss said. "Dealing with changing markets, competition from noncertified sources and coordinating the many partners involved in processing and marketing proved too difficult to make the business viable."

Still, Boss emphasized that cooperatives can exist in many forms and be successful. She said there are lessons learned from the good work completed, and that grass-roots efforts are still valuable in realizing commercial management of woodlands in a socially responsible way.

"Vermont Family Forest is one such vital woodland owner organization," Boss said. "They have a broader focus than we did, providing workshops, an independent forest management verification service, and doing research. Cooperative ventures are challenging, and it may be that marketing-oriented co-ops for wood products are more challenging than those with a primarily educational mission."

If you go ...

Local wood: For referrals
for local wood products
in Massachusetts, contact Emily Boss at (413) 625-9151, ext. 104, or emily@masswoodlands.org

Forests: For information about preserving local forests, visit the Massachusetts Woodlands Institute at www.masswoodlandsinstitute.org

In Vermont: For information about Vermont Family Forests, visit vermontfamilyforests.com