Part of a bill now on Gov. Charlie Baker's desk could unlock the economic potential of Massachusetts forests in ways not seen for a century.
Or, its opponents fear, the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership could compromise thousands of acres of forests and exacerbate climate change in a misguided search for short-term gains.
Five years after it was proposed, the 21-town partnership project made it into the environmental bond bill the Legislature enacted Monday, on the penultimate day of its formal session.
Proponents, including top environmental groups, insist the partnership will help secure the future of public and private forest land in northwest Massachusetts, including 10 Berkshire County communities, while at the same time tossing out an economic lifeline to struggling local economies.
But the measure barely made it through, after becoming one of the most controversial regional proposals in the current session, generating rafts of constituent calls and letters.
Though poised to become law, the partnership will continue to evolve, as communities send representatives to the board that will oversee a range of projects and as that new outfit translates theory into practice.
The partnership's goals are broad. It seeks both to "increase the resilience of forests" and to provide a source of "forest products and forestry-related jobs." At the same time, the law nods to concerns about air and water quality, carbon sequestration, fish and wildlife habitat and biological diversity.
The Berkshires communities involved are Adams, Cheshire, Clarksburg, Florida, New Ashford, North Adams, Peru, Savoy, Williamstown and Windsor. Eleven communities in Franklin County round out the tract involved.
Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, both say the measure was adjusted to respond to concerns by some that it was an effort to accelerate use of biomass as a fuel source.
The language adopted bars the partnership itself from operating a biomass facility. But the partnership as defined in the law clearly has money on its mind. It will work to tap the region's forest resources as an economic stimulus, whether from harvesting woods or encouraging environmental tourism.
"I think we have lots of work to do to continue to improve it and address concerns," said Hinds, who did not seek to include the measure in the Senate's environmental bond bill. The language was incorporated from the House version of that bill when the two were reconciled in July.
The law details steps ahead to form the partnership's board and determine its agenda. All participating communities will send representatives to the board, where they will work with a cross section of private groups, like land trusts and environmental organizations, and with state and federal agencies.
Hinds said that 18 communities expressed support for the partnership. It also won an endorsement late this month from the Commonwealth Conservation Council, whose members include Massachusetts Audubon, the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy and the Trustees of Reservations.
The council hailed the partnership as an "innovative model of voluntary grassroots collaboration" able to "boost both land conservation and economic development in this region."
"[It] will help keep the region's forests as forests, and bring new sources of funding and assistance to landowners and communities," the council wrote July 19 to the six lawmakers who made up the team reconciling the House and Senate bond bills, including Pignatelli.
Pignatelli said Monday the law was driven by needs expressed in the 21 towns. He said the House committee that first examined the measure sifted through public comments — and responded by making changes.
"We removed what seemed to be the most controversial issues," he said in a statement to The Eagle, in response to questions.
Out went references to biomass, wood as an energy source and wood-pellet production, Pignatelli said.
"The re-drafted version ... represents what the majority of people throughout the 21 communities and the original sponsors involved in the partnership support and advocated for," he said.
While overt support for biomass by the partnership was taken out, and while the definition of "sustainable forest management" notes the role of carbon sequestration, the law doesn't blink when it comes to the money end of things.
The partnership's purpose, the law said, includes "also providing a continuous yield of a range of useable forest products."
Towns in the affected area have two years to decide whether they want to participate. After five years, the partnership can, by a two-thirds vote of its board, decide to expand the area it covers.
A campaign's doubts
Changes in the legislature didn't appease opponents.
Some of those who fought the measure remain worried that proposed "sustainable forestry" won't materialize.
"This really is about logging," said Beth Adams of Leverett, an activist and project coordinator with the Massachusetts Forest Rescue Campaign. "Behind the scenes is the Massachusetts Forest Alliance, which is a wood-fuel lobby group."
The alliance is a member of 12 groups that make up the Commonwealth Conservation Council, which backed the project.
Adams said she has been tracking the partnership since 2014, well before legislation was filed. And after a bill arrived at the Statehouse, her group raised questions about what they saw as a play to stimulate access to public and private forests for biofuels.
She said the original version of the bill contained 80 references to pellet fuels or biomass.
"They changed some of the language after we started advocating for the climate," Adams said.
What her campaign seeks to rescue, in many ways, is the ability of forests to serve as a way to sequester carbon whose release contributes to global warming.
"The best thing to do is leave it intact," Adams said of forest properties. "We need all the forests we have to sequester carbon."
Dicken Crane, co-owner of Holiday Brook Farm in Dalton and a member of the woodlands partnership advisory council that began meeting in 2014, said provisions in the law will benefit the region's forests, not hurt them.
"There is a lot of interest in forest protection from people who live outside of forests," said Crane, speaking from a cell phone Monday while out working in a hayfield.
He disputes assertions that the removal of low-grade woods for biofuels is detrimental to forests. Instead, he argues that when incorporated into modern forestry practice that includes planting of new trees, removing "weeds" can add value.
Though the partnership itself will not operate a biomass plant, landowners in participating towns will be able to tap expertise that could help support a private-sector plant.
If a private enterprise is created to process pellets for stoves and heating, Crane said, that would both bring an economic shot in the arm and benefit stepped-up forest management. One of the partnership's goals is to help provide advice to forest landowners.
The law creates a fund that will accept donations and governmental allocations, with income used to support forest management endeavors.
"It will allow us to be able to do the kind of forestry that will increase the value of the forest — and allow us to keep [the lands] in forests."
Crane, who serves as president of the Massachusetts Forest Alliance, also disputes the idea that forests have to remain untouched by human hands to do all they can to slow climate change.
He said that when wood matter falls and decays, it releases carbon. And the higher-value hardwoods removed through forestry for use in furniture building or other products could actually outlast standing trees, tempering the pace of carbon release.
Adams, the Leverett opponent of the partnership plan, counters that the decay that takes place within forests is gradual and doesn't have the immediate impact of carbon release seen through use of biofuels.
Crane said his only misgiving about the long project is what he termed the stridency of opponents "who are determined to derail it, for reasons that are not sound."
Adams, though, is resolute in her belief that the effort is not in keeping with the state's climate goals. She also questions whether prospective towns understand the project.
In its early stages, partnership planning was guided by Thomas Matuszko, now executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, and Peggy Sloan, planning director for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments.
Matuszko is out of the office and Sloan could not be reached for comment.
Crane says that an early impetus for the project was interest shown by the U.S. Forest Service in expanding Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest into Massachusetts.
That raised concerns about federal oversight of local lands, Crane said, and spurred interest among communities in shaping their own project. The new law spells out steps that will help ensure diverse leadership of the partnership.
Crane said the federal agency has been shopping for a model of grassroots forest management that could be replicated in other regions of the country.
Proponents of the partnership believe their venture will in time be worth emulating.
"It was one that came out of the communities," Crane said. "We have worked to find common ground."
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.