Our Opinion: Addressing concerns about woodlands group

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Benign partnership to protect forests while opening them to visitors or stalking horse for a federal agency determined to exploit forests? Those are the dueling viewpoints of the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership, which is now poised to begin its work.

A 2018 law creating the partnership required membership of 11 of 21 eligible communities in Berkshire and Franklin County (Eagle, June 20). The number has been reached with Adams, Cheshire, New Ashford, North Adams and Peru representing the Berkshires. Williamstown, Clarksburg, Florida, Savoy and Windsor are the other eligible Berkshire towns.

Proponents revised enabling legislation calling for creation of a biomass facility because wood burning is so controversial environmentally that the facility would have made it difficult if not impossible to get approval from 11 towns through town meetings or votes of Select Boards. Disappointed advocates of the biomass facility maintain that without it there is no point in having a partnership. The partnership, however, can serve a beneficial purpose if it moves forward while taking into consideration the concerns of skeptics.

The region covered by the partnership is 82 percent woodland. Thomas Matuszko, the executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, and his counterpart, Peggy Sloan, representing the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, have led a multi-year effort to create the partnership to enable towns, most of them small in population and large in geographic area, to benefit from these woodlands in ways they could not accomplish on their own. The partnership's goal is forest conservation and stewardship as well as expanded tourism.

The partnership will also "promote forestry-based economic development" which is a concern for those interested primarily in conservation. Timber has long been taken from these woodlands but there is concern that towns will lose their voice in timber policies.

Which is where the U.S. Forest Service comes in. Skepticism of the involvement of any federal agency in any project should be mandatory these days. Art Schwenger of Heath, a member of the advisory board to the partnership, told The Eagle that the partnership will take advantage of Forest Service expertise and individual towns don't have to participate in programs they are opposed to. However, if member towns can pick and choose which partnership efforts they will or will not support the partnership is likely to unravel.

William Moomaw of Williamstown, a Tufts University professor and internationally renowned expert on climate change, echoed the concerns of skeptics in an email to The Eagle's Larry Parnass. He warned that member towns risk losing local control over their woodlands, jeopardizing the beauty of forests that appeal to residents and visitors.

The Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership is in keeping with other regional efforts in and around Berkshire County. Whether it is establishing regional school districts, sharing administrative jobs among towns, or combining water and sewer services across borders, these strategies can enable towns to do much that they could never do on their own, to the benefit of residents. Concerns about a loss of home rule or a town's identity will always be present, but if properly constructed and operated these regional agreements will serve the common good.

The partnership will now draw up a business plan, craft bylaws and form a governing board, and officials in the 11 member towns, and those in towns that may join, must be actively involved to protect their interests. The governing body should consist primarily of town officials to address Mr. Moomaw's legitimate concern that the Forest Service and members of the forest industry will have undo influence. The partnership has genuine potential for good. Whether or it meets that potential will largely be determined in the weeks and months ahead.

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