PITTSFIELD — With 11 towns signed up, the controversial Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership can move off the starting blocks.
Advocates envision hope for hard-pressed towns. But critics see a patient effort, aided by the U.S. Forest Service, to unlock access to privately owned tracts in a region that's 82 percent woods.
Public concerns led proponents to revise legislation that passed a year ago, backing off interest in running a biomass facility.
Today, efforts to aid forestry remain.
"Forestry is a part of it. There's no denying it. We're not intending to deny it," said Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.
The 2018 law required at least 11 of 21 communities in Berkshire and Franklin counties to agree to take part. That 11th vote came June 10, a milestone celebrated Tuesday with cake when an advisory group met at Berkshire East ski resort in Charlemont.
"I want to give a hand to all the representatives who, at least from my side of the mountain, were really instrumental in selling this," said Matuszko.
Adams, Cheshire, New Ashford, North Adams and Peru have signed on. The Williamstown Select Board is scheduled Monday to discuss joining. Other eligible Berkshire County towns are Clarksburg, Florida, Savoy and Windsor.
For several years, Matuszko and Peggy Sloan, a counterpart at the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, led efforts to create the partnership, using state funding to pay for their time. "We still have some towns to visit, but we will be working on that over the next month or so," Sloan said Tuesday.
An advisory board is expected to hold one more meeting. After that, the partnership will ramp up the frequency of its meetings as it writes bylaws and a business plan and transitions to a governing board.
The partnership's goals link natural resources with economic development. On the recreation side, the group will seek to expand tourism and promote land conservation.
But given the dominance of forests, timber is a key factor. The group says it will promote both "forestry-based economic development" and "forest stewardship and conservation on privately owned land."
Janet Sinclair of Buckland, an alternate member to the advisory panel and forest issues activist, questions the depth of the group's commitment to tourism and land protection.
"Wood burning is absolutely central to this project," she said in an interview after the meeting. " It feels like a big lie."
Michael Kellett, executive director of the nonprofit RESTORE: The North Woods, based in Westford, opposed creation of the partnership.
"I think there is a big gap between what their goals are and what they are actually doing," said Kellett.
"There are key players involved who are interested in forestry. Biomass is a way to make forestry more profitable," he said. "Should we be putting public money in promoting forestry? What does the public get in return?"
The advisory group includes representatives of several environmental groups.
Art Schwenger of Heath, an advisory board member, refutes the idea that the federal government is angling to influence what happens on forest lands in the area. "This is an opportunity to maybe get Forest Service expertise. That's exciting. No stealth about it. It's all optional. The towns don't have to participate and neither do the private landowners," he said.
Deirdre Rose, the Forest Service's liaison to the partnership, has been relaying information on the project's status to her agency. "They were excited to see something formed out of the bureaucracy — something that came together and was a new idea," she said.
Rose said the Forest Service will now reach an agreement with the partnership. She said interest runs both ways. "The intent of the group is to invite the Forest Service to be a part of it," she said in an interview.
Kurt Gaertner, director of land policy and planning for the Executive Office of Energy & Environmental Affairs, told the advisory group the state will explore ways to fund the partnership's work.
Gaertner said his agency's new leader, Kathleen Theoharides, will soon be briefed on the partnership's status and goals. "The secretary's office is looking at ways to help with funding both with longer-term creation of the trust that was intended as the effort was forming," he said, as well as through monies available to Theoharides.
Several officials from Berkshire County defended having select boards make the decision to join. The law allows either those boards or residents at town meeting to opt in.
Mark Phelps of New Ashford, a licensed logger, said he felt his town's Select Board, on which he serves, should make the call.
He said in an interview he has backed the project since it took shape several years ago. "There are no mandates," Phelps said. "There are opportunities that private landowners can take advantage of."
Ed Munch, a Peru Select Board member, said his panel made it known the issue of joining the partnership would be taken up at a March meeting. "We didn't go to town meeting because all of our meetings are posted," Munch said. "We had an open meeting and brought it up at the meeting."
Joe Nowak, a Select Board member from Adams, said his board's proceedings are televised, giving residents access to its discussion about the partnership. "It's probably the biggest show in town," Nowak said of those televised meetings. "I didn't get any negative calls about it."
Matuszko said decisions that lie ahead for the partnership will be made by people in the region. "It's locally controlled, this whole effort," he said.
But William Moomaw of Williamstown, a Tufts University professor and expert in climate change, views the partnership as "a step in the wrong direction" that could erode local control.
Reached by email in Europe, where he is presenting a paper on use of forests to counter greenhouse gas emissions, Moomaw said the project's land conservation goals are modest, roughly 100 acres per town.
He said town officials who opt in need a fuller picture of the partnership's goals. "Do the towns know that they may jeopardize the spectacular beauty of our Berkshire forests that not only supports our important tourist industry, but will degrade our own local enjoyment of these lands?" he asked.
Moomaw believes town officials will be outnumbered on the partnership's governing body by the Forest Service and members of the forest industry. "They are turning over an aspect of home rule to this organization," he said.
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.