Forestry, biomass bills rerouted to proposed commission

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PITTSFIELD — Not yea. Not nay. This decision went sideways.

After failing to secure a legislative panel's backing, a bill that would shelter state-owned forests from timber harvesting was neither rejected nor sent into "study" limbo.

Instead, proposals at the heart of H. 897 — and a clutch of other forestry proposals — might be taken up by a special commission.

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said that members of the joint House-Senate panel he co-chairs decided that issues raised in the bills warranted further review, beyond the September hearing held before the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture.

Berkshire County is home to thousands of acres of state forest that would have been affected by the bill, filed by state Rep. Susannah M. Whipps, an Athol independent. Statewide, it would apply to 610,000 acres of forest, one-fifth of all wooded lands in the Bay State.

"We want to have a commission that studies forestry practices more comprehensively in the commonwealth," Pignatelli said.

The 12-member group proposed by Pignatelli's committee must clear legislative hurdles by July and secure Gov. Charlie Baker's signature. If established, it would take testimony, cooperate with groups and state agencies, read studies, meet at least four times and issue a report by Jan. 1.

In addition to considering the "extent and adequacy" of forest management practices in Massachusetts, on state and private lands alike, the commission would step out on terrain that has provoked debate for years.

Its members would be asked, for instance, to consider state policies related to climate change and to explore whether biomass should be considered a renewable energy source. The biomass question alone has been the subject of fervent debate.

People for and against the proposed ban on timber cutting in state forests, as well as a few other bills rolled into the commission's marching papers, wanted a different outcome.

Christopher Egan, executive director of the Massachusetts Forest Alliance, said his group questions the scientific basis of some of the proposals now routed to the commission, viewing them as "bad bills."

"We're a little disappointed that the Legislature didn't recognize that," he said.

The group of bills referred to the commission includes a measure filed by state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, that would study carbon sequestration in woodlands and woodlots with an eye toward meeting the state's climate change goals.

On top of that, H. 853, filed by Denise Provost, D-Somerville, would make biomass ineligible for subsidies under the state's clean energy program. Egan's group opposed it.

The fourth bill relayed to the commission, filed by state Rep. Paul W. Mark, D-Peru, would adjust relicensing requirements for people who harvest forest products. The bill would require that paperwork every three years, instead of annually, and was backed by the trade group.

Egan said he thinks H. 3737 should not have been lumped in with the other proposals and is simply designed to "save everybody money."

Two lead proponents of the proposal to ban cutting in state forests insist that science is on their side.

Janet Sinclair, of Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, says the heart of H. 897 is straightforward.

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"This bill was a response to new scientific evidence about forests and climate change, the biodiversity collapse, and talking with thousands of Massachusetts residents who are rarely aware that our lands are not protected like national parks are," she said.

Supporters argued that Whipps' proposal would protect the ability of trees on publicly owned land to continue to draw in and hold carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

"The idea is simple: designate our public lands as parks or reserves, using almost identical language that already exists," Sinclair said. "And make that be the law, not something that can be changed by DCR."

An early draft of the commission proposal included, as members, a climate change expert and a representative chosen by the Massachusetts Forest Alliance.

"We hope we have an opportunity to observe and perhaps comment," Egan said.

Pignatelli said the joint committee removed the positions that were to be held by Egan's group and a climate change expert.

"We can't have it stacked one way or another," he said.

Michael Kellett, executive director of the nonprofit Restore: The North Woods, is a co-author of the measure to ban cutting in state forests. He sees the proposed commission's membership as too narrow.

Of its 12 members, eight would be named by lawmakers or represent state agencies. The remaining four seats would go to a licensed private forester, a land trust, someone with experience managing forestland and a resident of a town in which the state owns at least 30 percent of the land.

"I think the commission membership should be more balanced," Kellett said. "Adding a forest ecologist, a climate scientist, a public health expert and another member from a community with more than 30 percent state lands within its boundaries would greatly improve the commission's representation."

Of the bill itself, Kellett echoes Sinclair in saying it was simply stated and sought to model management of state forestland on the national park system. He said it allowed exceptions for public health and safety, or environmental reasons.

Timber issue

Several environmental groups joined the Massachusetts Forest Alliance to oppose the ban on timber harvesting on state land. They included the Franklin Land Trust, Mass Audubon, the Trustees of Reservations, the Nature Conservancy of Massachusetts and the Environmental League of Massachusetts.

In an Oct. 11 letter to Pignatelli and his committee co-chairwoman, state Sen. Anne Gobi, the groups said that the best way to safeguard existing forest carbon is to prevent development.

"At this point, the greatest immediate threat to our Massachusetts forests are the more than one million acres of lands prioritized for conservation that have no legal protection and are therefore at risk of development," the letter says.

Supporters of H. 897 included acclaimed biologist E.O. Wilson of Harvard University, writer and activist Bill McKibben, Green Berkshires, Climate Action Now, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Walden Woods Project and Biodiversity for a Livable Climate.

In an article in Commonwealth Magazine, McKibben expressed support for Whipps' and Provost's bills.

"Trees are an important part of both sides of the [climate] equation. Put simply, to fight climate change, we need to stop burning trees and let them grow," he wrote. "And the latest science makes clear that the longer and larger they grow, the more carbon they suck up."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.


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