Lauren R. Stevens: Untapped forest benefits



Northern Berkshire County and northwestern Franklin County forests could benefit from state and federal resources while not part of a national forest -- that’s the idea the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, Franklin Land Trust and the Franklin Regional Council of Governments proposed to 20 towns last month. Massachusetts does not have a national forest and therefore misses out on some resources.

These towns contain some 280,000 acres of forested land, one of the area’s outstanding characteristics, some state-owned, some institutionally or town-owned and much owned by private individuals. The amount of forested land is increasing as former farm fields grow over.

Designating them would not change ownership, although it would provide owners the option of placing conservation restrictions on their land. Owners would be paid for those restrictions, which would be flexible but prohibit development. Restrictions would be held by the state, towns or land trusts.

This innovative, new designation might be tied to Chapter 61, an existing forest use program requiring filing forest management plans, which must be updated every 10 years. U.S. Forest Service assistance for these plans would be available, as would technical assistance in sustainable forestry practices, control of invasive species or pests, and climate change adaptation. A model forest might be established to guide landowners in best management practices, but the amount of land the Forest Service owned, if any, would be capped.

Properties with restrictions would receive a break on their real estate taxes, just as in Chapter 61, but land would still be taxable. In no case would the eminent domain powers of the U.S. Forest Service be invoked.

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The feds could also help with marketing strategies, such as setting up a pellet plant to provide fuel for heating municipal buildings and schools. They could provide assistance in establishing value-added manufacturing for wood products. They could assist in tourism or infrastructure projects, including improving stream crossings.

Limiting development, which leads to impermeable surfaces and creates pollution from septic fields and lawn care, would benefit rivers and streams in the Hoosic and Deerfield River watersheds. Forests are an ideal environment for water courses, soaking up storms to release water gradually, filtering pollution and shading stream corridors. Both the Deerfield and the Hoosic are cold water fisheries, which will be tested by climate change, so that limiting direct sun would aide their ecosystems.

Considering the forested corridor stretching north and south along Route 2, the Mohawk Trail, might also provide an opportunity to improve wildlife habitat, not only on individual properties but through connected private and public properties

Such benefits could be available to private and public landowners in towns that subscribed to the program. According to proponents, "the purpose of any designation would be to conserve forests, increase economic development that is based on sustainable forestry practices and recreational tourism, and improve the fiscal stability of municipalities." Planners await town expressions of interest.

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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