Lauren R. Stevens: Find forest balance with economy, environment

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Does the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership, designed to use forest resources to improve the economies of communities in northern Berkshire and western Franklin counties, threaten the climate?

The Massachusetts legislature passed the Partnership last summer as part of the environmental bond but Gov. Charlie Baker amended the legislation. The issues were technical: open meeting law and accounting procedures. The new version was approved at the end of the session, in December. The towns have two years to sign on to a program intended to aid private landowners.

This column is pro-trees. It has focused on the way trees involve human lives, the way trees communicate with each other, the health and spiritual benefits of contact with trees and efforts at tree planting, all within the last year or so. I can attest that being in the forest makes me feel good, even beyond what results from exercise.

This column has also repeatedly urged mitigation and adaptation to climate change. There is no greater threat to the planet, including humans' place on it, than the massive heating caused by the carbon and other greenhouse gases we are releasing into the atmosphere.

So I listen carefully when Bob Leverett, the discoverer of ancient forests regionally, and Bill Moomaw, a scientist who has battled climate change for over 30 years, caution about cutting trees. Moomaw and Leverett have joined their considerable expertise to determine just how much carbon trees and forested ground sequester.

Bigger and older trees (they are not always the same) soak up more carbon than younger, smaller. So, although no one would intentionally cut old growth, the loggers' prime targets, mature trees, say 50 to 100 years old, also play a significant role in sequestration.

On the other hand: someone who holds wooded land probably could sell it for development, which might remove not just selected trees but all trees. This is the person the Partnership hopes to reach, to teach sustainable forestry and to help find financial incentive for retaining forest cover.

The Partnership, assuming the towns sign on, aims to preserve forest values, such as protecting and recharging water supply, wildlife habitat and diversity, water and air cleansing — and recreation. It acknowledges the value of carbon storage and sequestration.

By way of a special designation from the U.S. Forest Service and the state's Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the Partnership hopes "to bring recognition and additional financial and technical resources to 21 municipalities in northwestern Massachusetts." For that reason the major statewide environmental organizations have signed on.

Moomaw has said that it would be better not to cut older trees at all. According to Tom Matusko, director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and a lead proponent, the Partnership aims to retain and improve local forests by cutting some trees, a goal that includes carbon retention.

Combating climate change has to be the top priority. All efforts need to be marshaled toward that goal. Yet it seems as though there ought to be a way to align that with economic return that encourages private landowners to keep their holdings wooded.

At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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