At hearing on Mass. forest protection bill, it's climate vs. industry

Susan Masino, of Peru, speaking at microphone at right, testifies Tuesday in Boston in support of a bill that would restrict commercial logging on state forest land. Masino, a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, spoke during a public hearing to members of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture. At far left is the panel's co-chairman, Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.

BOSTON — Competing views of the impact of logging in state-owned forests at a time of climate crisis clashed Tuesday at a hearing chaired by a Berkshires lawmaker.

The Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture took over two hours of testimony on a bill, "An Act Relative to Forest Protection," that would classify all state land as parks or reserves, with virtually no allowance for commercial logging.

Berkshire County is home to thousands of acres of state forest that would be affected by the change proposed in the bill filed this year by state Rep. Susannah M. Whipps of Athol.

Opponents, including the Massachusetts Forest Alliance, say the measure would hurt municipalities that receive revenues from logging and weaken the state's forest products industry. They contend state-owned forests are already sequestering carbon at impressive levels and in that way playing a role in combating climate change.

But as global leaders meet this week in New York City to discuss climate change, some who back the bill pressed the committee to do its part to ensure Massachusetts is living up to its climate goals.

Michael Kellett, executive director of the nonprofit Restore: The North Woods, said the bill would enable publicly owned trees on land that represents a fifth of all Massachusetts forests to continue to draw in and hold carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. The measure would affect roughly 610,000 acres of forest.

"We face a climate emergency and this is a simple and effective way to help increase the capacity of our forests to protect biodiversity and sequester carbon now and in the future," Kellett said.

While a half-dozen people spoke Tuesday against H. 897, more than two dozen others issued technical, historical and at times emotional appeals to end logging in state forests.

Susan A. Masino, a Peru resident who is a neuroscientist and Trinity College professor, said forests globally are a known source of medicines and provide homes to species that continue to be discovered.

She and Williamstown resident William Moomaw, an internationally known climate scientist, recently co-authored a scientific paper on the merits of "proforestation." In it, they argue that mature forests trap more carbon than younger ones — and are thus a critical tool to fight global warming.

"We really need to treasure what we have," Masino said of forests, "and use them for public good."

Representatives of the forest products industry told members of the committee, co-chaired by Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, that forests can be managed and supply timber in concert with carbon-reduction goals.

Christopher Egan, the forest alliance's executive director, told the committee that Whipps' bill would undo work earlier this decade on the Forest Futures Visioning Process that set aside just under 40 percent of state forests as woodlands managed by agencies like the Department of Conservation and Recreation. On that land, logging is allowed.

"We're making good progress and getting things we need from our forests," Egan told the panel.

In written testimony provided to the committee, Egan said that on DCR land, stocks of captured carbon have doubled per acre in the last 60 years. He cited figures provided by the state and said the carbon is the equivalent of taking 5.6 million cars off the road.

Former state Rep. Daniel Bosley, who represented northern Berkshires communities for more than two decades, said he opposes the bill in part because he believes state agencies need tools to care for forests — including logging.

"The ability to manage that is taken away in this bill," Bosley said.

From the witness table, Ken Conkey, a logger whose family company is now cutting in the Wendell State Forest, gestured to wood paneling in the Statehouse hearing room.

"We're storing a whole bunch of carbon in here," he said in a low voice. He claimed the bill would cost loggers their jobs.

"We're not devastating the forests. I'm really proud of what I do," Conkey said. "We're farmers. We grow and harvest forest products. I don't see why anyone supports this."

Ross P. Hubacz, of North Brookfield, a forester and chairman of the state chapter of the Society of American Foresters, called the bill "misguided." He said New England forests lack areas of young trees that provide habitat for certain species.

Proponents like Kellett countered that there is no evidence that forest cutting is needed to aid biodiversity.

"There's an abundance of biodiversity that can only be found in older forests," said Charlotte Burns, a Massachusetts teacher. "The state forests belong to all of us. Let them be."

Janet Sinclair, a lead proponent of the measure and member of Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, presented the committee with 1,779 signatures of people who support the ban on logging in state forests.

Sinclair said she found backing while visiting dozens of communities.

"They wonder why, when the Amazon is burning, are we cutting in Wendell State Forest? The public is on our side in this," she said.

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, a co-sponsor of the legislation, told the panel that the measure is a priority for her because it would increase the ability of Massachusetts forests to remove carbon from the atmosphere. State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, is another co-sponsor.

Comerford began by quoting former Vice President Al Gore, who wrote recently: "So far, the best available technology for pulling carbon dioxide from the air is something called a tree."

That view had already been expressed by John Galt, of Pittsfield, who told the panel, speaking of the tree: "It's the only mechanism we have to reduce greenhouse gases."

Comerford noted that despite losing 50,000 acres of land to development from 2005 to 2013, a state report found that levels of carbon sequestration have continued to rise in Massachusetts.

The urgency of addressing climate change, Comerford said, compels policymakers to act. "Accordingly, the Commonwealth's forest management and land stewardship practices must again be updated to place additional emphasis on carbon sequestration and forest conservation," she said.

Gov. Charlie Baker joined with 16 other state leaders in 2017 as part of the United States Climate Alliance. The group has embraced greenhouse gas reductions in line with the goals of the Paris climate accord.

One objective of the 17-state group is to "increase carbon stored in forest ecosystems and reduce losses of already-stored carbon."

"I can't believe we can't find a way forward," Comerford said in an interview outside the hearing room.

In an interview, Egan, of the forest alliance, restated his belief that the state is "making good progress" on carbon reduction — and said forestry plays a role.

"Sustainable forestry is helping to create those conditions," he said. "We feel we're choosing the right balance."

But opponents of logging in state forests say that given what they see as a climate emergency, Whipps' bill is needed to correct an imbalance that allows carbon release through timber cutting.

Glen Ayers, of Greenfield, a student and critic of DCR logging practices, said the agency's management of timber-cutting plans needs more oversight.

Addressing the economics of logging, Susan Purser, of Becket, said her research shows that the state typically loses money on its logging operations. She calculated that a red oak tree cut in the Wendell State Forest fetched $43 for the state treasury.

"This makes no sense at all," she said. "Those trees are much more valuable for carbon storage."

Adele Franks, a public health physician, said she believes the DCR's handling of an ongoing timber sale in the Wendell State Forest raised public doubts about its operations.

"Their cutting policies are not serving us well," Franks said.

Bob Armstrong, a member of the Conway Select Board and chairman of the Climate Crisis Task Force of Franklin County, questioned why the state has been moving to increase the availability of subsidies provided by electricity ratepayers to companies that burn wood. Another bill, H. 853, seeks to end subsidies for wood heating.

"How has our state government lost its way?" he asked.

Bill Copeland, a retired pediatrician who lives in Northfield, argued that an established forest is a greater public good, both for carbon storage and for providing habitat. Publicly owned forests should be protected from "extraction," Copeland said. "Stop saying that cutting helps because we wish that it did."

"They improve the older they get," Copeland said of forests. "We must reconsider our habitual disregard for ecosystem integrity."