Michael Kellett: Back bill saving state's forests

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LINCOLN — Vast forests in the Amazon and California are burning, helping to fuel climate disruption. Biologists estimate that 1 million plant and animal species could go extinct in the coming decades. Where do our Massachusetts forests fit into these global crises? Can protecting them make a difference?

The people of Massachusetts have a history of forest protection. Ten years ago some of our public land was designated as "reserves" — where forest ecosystems are guided by natural processes. These areas also allow management flexibility to address public safety, fires, invasive species, and critical wildlife habitat. Some other public land is designated as "parks," which are also managed for recreational uses.

Still, most of our state lands remain open to commercial logging that goes beyond management needed for ecological or public safety reasons. State land use is governed by laws that were written decades ago; the overarching policy law was written in 1943. It mandates that our forests include a focus on commercial wood production. This old law needs to be updated.

After close to century recovery from the widespread clear-cutting of the past, U.S. Forest Service maps show that Western Massachusetts forests are among the most carbon-dense in the Northeast. Recent science shows us that these forests are vital in drawing down and storing atmospheric carbon to fight climate disruption, and they have not even reached their full ecological potential. When they are kept intact and allowed to continue growing, these forests will absorb carbon at an increasing rate for a century or more to come.

Research is also showing us that intact, uncut forests provide superior biodiversity and ecological stability compared to managed forests. Natural forests provide the full range of habitats, from stately old-growth groves to openings caused by disturbances — termed "early successional habitats" — without the need for human intervention. Compared with managed forests, these complex natural forest ecosystems are more resilient in adapting to climate change, they sustain healthier and more diverse populations of native plant and animal species, and they are more resistant to the spread of invasive species.

PUBLIC LANDS, PUBLIC GOOD

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I believe that most residents of Massachusetts also value wilder and less managed forests because they benefit our physical and emotional well-being. Yet only about 1 percent of our land base is permanently protected in a natural state. After all, isn't that what Henry David Thoreau was writing about 150 years ago? His call to preserve wild places is more relevant than ever in today's increasingly developed world.

It is time to re-think how our public lands can best serve the public good. The evidence is clear that natural forests are better than managed forests for climate change mitigation, native wildlife species, and public health and recreation. The good news is that by allowing nature to manage forests to protect one of these values, we are protecting them all.

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H.897 was introduced in the Massachusetts Legislature to address these concerns. This bill simply seeks to expand lands currently designated as parks and reserves, and to make those designations permanent, rather than being re-evaluated and potentially changed every decade as they are now by state agencies. The bill would provide public land with protections similar to our National Parks while having no impact on privately owned land.

Ecologists call for between 17 percent and 50 percent of the Earth to be set aside to slow the accelerating loss of wildlife and habitats that threatens the health of our planet. As we call on other countries to preserve some of their forests for climate change and biodiversity, H.897 is an opportunity to do our part here at home. In the words of the eminent biologist, E.O. Wilson:

"Many decades of research have convinced me and many other conservation biologists that we must save at least half of the Earth from industrial exploitation if we hope to avoid catastrophic plant and animal extinctions. A bill introduced into this Massachusetts legislative session would make us the first state to give this protection to all of its public lands. I strongly support this bill, which will permanently protect [11 percent] of the Massachusetts land area, reaching from the Berkshires to the Atlantic Coast."

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Most of the National Parks that we now take for granted faced vehement opposition from commercial interests when they were first proposed. Their creation often came only after decades of hard work by dedicated citizen advocates. So I am not surprised that a vocal minority is opposed to H.897, which is a very similar effort. But this opposition is sadly shortsighted.

How many people believe that we would be better off today if Yellowstone, Yosemite, Acadia, and other existing National Parks had been opened to commercial logging instead of being permanently protected for future generations?

It is my sincere hope that our lawmakers will be far-sighted leaders, pass H.897 into law, and make history for the forests and people of Massachusetts.

Please call on Sen. Anne Gobi and Rep. Smitty Pignatelli to support this important bill. For more information visit https://www.savemassforests.com/

Michael Kellett is executive director of the Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization, RESTORE: The North Woods.


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