Massachusetts Forests Face Relentless Development Pressure

WASHINGTON, DC, May 5, 2005 (ENS) - Half the state of Massachusetts - some 2.5 million acres - should be protected as forest, according to a report released Thursday by Harvard Forest scientists.

New England forests have regenerated over the past 150 years, the scientists said. But now development is accelerating forest fragmentation, and the risk of losing the ecological, economic and social benefits that forests provide.

"We have to realize that we rely on our forests for clean air, clean water, recreation, wildlife habitat and wood," said David Foster, director of Harvard University's Harvard Forest and coauthor of the new study.

The state - and other states across the Eastern United States - face an "opportune and critical time" to protect their landscapes and forests, Foster told reporters.

Much of the Eastern United States has come from a period of intense deforestation and agricultural use to a point where "we have more forest cover than at any time in the last two centuries," the Harvard study says. forest

Forests across Massachusetts have rebounded in the past 150 years. (Photograph by John O'Keefe courtesy NASA)
These forests are growing and maturing, the Harvard University ecologist said, but face a second wave of deforestation from residential, commercial and industrial development.

"The nature of forest loss in the 21st century is different than anything we have seen in the past," Foster said. "Pavement is almost always permanent."

The Harvard Forest study notes that 20 percent of Massachusetts is protected from development, but cautions that existing land conservation and forest management strategies are inadequate to balance future development and environmental needs in the state.

Massachusetts is the third most densely populated state in the nation and is losing open space to development at a rate of 40 acres a day.

The report calls for a protective umbrella across Massachusetts that consists of forest reserves - called "wildlands" - and sustainably managed areas defined as "woodlands."


Sustainable timber harvesting is part of the broad conservation plan outlined in the report. (Photograph by David Foster courtesy Harvard Forest)
The scientists recommend 250,000 acres of land owned by the state be set aside as wildlands and left untouched by human intervention.

These wildland areas would range from 5,000 to 50,000 acres in size - all told they would encompass 50 percent of state owned lands.

"No state east of the Mississippi would have a comparable network of wild, naturally functioning forest ecosystems," Foster said.

Conservation easements and restrictions should be put on some 2.25 million acres of public and private land, according to the study, and managed to support sustainable timber harvesting, recreation and wildlife habitat.

A solid partnership between the state and private landowners is critical to the plan, said coauthor David Kittredge, a forest professor at the University of Massachusetts.

Private individuals own some 75 percent of the state's forest land, Kittredge said, but the current system for informing and supporting private forest landowners with conservation efforts "is woefully inadequate."

The report proposes setting up five regional Woodland Councils to provide a mechanism for focusing energy, funding and public participation in land protection strategies.

Massachusetts is a good testing ground for the overall strategy, the scientists said, because it has a high density of land trust organizations and private conservation groups.

"There is already a network of land owners willing to go forward with this kind of plan," Foster added, "if there are resources and funding available." oak

The study says existing growth rates can still be sustained if the conservation plan is implemented. (Photograph by David Kittredge courtesy Harvard Forest)
The study does not detail a total cost for the plan, which would take several decades to complete.

Keith Ross, a senior advisor at Landvest, a consulting firm, said the cost "is going to be a moving target."

The state does have a "tremendous number of forest stewards who really take good care of their property," Ross said, "and it is never going to be cheaper than it is now."

Kittredge said considerations of cost should factor in the "value of the green infrastructure."

He cited the example of the Quabbin Reservoir, which provides unfiltered, clean drinking water for the Boston metropolitan area.

Building a filtration plant would cost some $500 million, Kittredge said, but that is unnecessary "because we have a great forest filtration plant."

The report "Wildlands and Woodlands: A Vision for Massachusetts," can be found here.