'Woodlands' project to elect officers, but lacks core funding

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People who shaped a one-of-a-kind forest resources project gathered this week around rustic tables in a ski lodge for their final session, a year after their vision became state law.

The next time some of them meet, it will be to stand up an entirely new quasi-governmental agency — the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership Board. Its three-part mission is to use woodlands in Berkshire and Franklin counties to spur rural economic development, conserve forests and help financially troubled small towns.

But as the new group takes shape, it lacks the significant government funding that members anticipated.

Instead, the state plans to provide $20,000 grants to the 13 towns that have signed on so far, as the partnership's main advocate in Boston angles for funding for a single staff position.

"We're trying to get started in a lot of different ways," said Robert O'Connor, director of land and forests for the Executive Office of Energy & Environmental Affairs, speaking to the partnership's advisory committee Tuesday at Berkshire East in Charlemont.

O'Connor said he briefed Kathleen A. Theoharides, the new secretary of energy and environmental affairs, and she authorized grants of up to $20,000 to towns that have joined the partnership. The money must be used to implement any of the partnership's goals.

"She said she wanted to jump-start it by giving funding to the towns," O'Connor said.

After dozens of meetings over several years, some members of the advisory committee will sit on the sidelines when the partnership's newly constituted board meets for the first time in January.

In Berkshire County, Clarksburg, Florida and Savoy have not opted in to the partnership, which encompasses 21 towns in the two counties; they have until next August to join.

The law that created the partnership passed as part of an environmental bond bill in August 2018, over the objections of opponents, after an earlier version scaled back on references to the use of wood from the region for biomass fuels.

At the same time, the state has continued to support creation of a market for biomass through grants to schools to pay for wood-fueled boilers, among other spending.

The Berkshire County towns of Adams, Cheshire, New Ashford, Peru, Williamstown and Windsor and the city of North Adams have joined the partnership. In Franklin County, member towns include Ashfield, Charlemont, Conway, Rowe and Shelburne.

"Many of the people around the table are continuing [to serve], I'm happy to say," said Peggy Sloan, director of planning and development for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments.

Her group and the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission were hired years ago to support creation of the partnership. One of the advisory committee's final acts Tuesday was to review proposed bylaws for the partnership board.

Ed Munch, a Peru Select Board member who sits on the advisory committee, asked for clarification on how the first agenda would be set, given that a board does not exist to write it.

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"I just don't want to be talking to the AG," he said, referring to the Office of the Attorney General.

Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and co-facilitator of the advisory committee with Sloan, agreed.

"We don't want to run afoul at our very first meeting," he said.

Though an executive committee of the new board eventually will oversee an administrative agent, that position is not funded. Sloan and Matuszko will continue to assist, O'Connor said.

Meantime, O'Connor said he is hopeful that the U.S. Forest Service will provide a three-year grant to pay the salary of a partnership staff person; a decision on that money is expected this winter.

Deirdre Rose, the Forest Service's longtime liaison to the partnership, is helping the group find a precedent for federal funding. In its original budget planning, the partnership had anticipated as much as $30 million in government backing.

Matuszko said he and others hope to supply information to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, in support of regular funding that Neal could seek from Congress.

"In all honesty, it's been a little of a chicken-and-egg situation," Matuszko said. The state and federal governments have been looking to the other to allocate money.

"Somebody has to go first, and I'm not sure how we get that done," he said.

O'Connor and Rose have been invited by the Forest Service to speak with the national agency in a meeting in October in Madison, Wis. They will present a two-hour talk on the new partnership, O'Connor said.

"They're very much interested in the Mohawk Trail," he said of the federal agency.

Unlike many states, the Forest Service does not oversee nationally owned lands in Massachusetts. An original proposal a decade ago to expand Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest south into Massachusetts faced local opposition.

With the partnership, the Forest Service secures a position that could allow it to influence how private woodlands are managed in Massachusetts. The draft bylaws call for the Forest Service to hold one of five seats on a new board's executive committee, along with a representative from O'Connor's office, a regional organization and two town delegates.

In addition to member towns, the partnership board includes two officials from the University of Massachusetts and 10 members of other organizations.

From Berkshire County, those include the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, Lever Inc. and the Hoosic River Watershed Association.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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