Cox/My Turn: More questions than answers
There is a new proposal to create a national forest in western Massachusetts, not a traditional national forest where the Forest Service owns land outright, but instead mostly a network of federally funded conservation restrictions of working woodlands in 20 towns, where private landowners sell their development rights but continue to own and manage their woods.
The Forest Service would buy 1,000 to 2,000 acres for use as a demonstration forest and have a visitors center somewhere. More federal money would be spent to spur tourism and economic development in some fashion.
Free money to help conserve our woods and improve our economy? Sounds like a good thing, right? Well ... perhaps.
At the informational meetings held so far, no one can quite explain how such a national forest would really work. How will it affect local communities? What would it mean for those who work in our woods? If landowners agree to protect their land permanently, will they need to get both federal and state permits to manage it? Will they have to defend against lawsuits from people who don’t like their plans to work on their land, as often happens with national forests? Will the restrictions allow their grandchildren enough flexibility to adapt to different markets and a changed climate 50 years from now? How will economic development and new jobs really come about?
As residents of this region, we need to find out what is really being proposed, ask lots of questions, but be wary of any promises of significant new funding from the overextended federal budget. Every summer, many Forest Service programs are put on hold and their funds diverted to pay to fight forest fires out west. Is it realistic to expect there will be fewer fires and fewer diversions in the future? If the federal money is cut — who will be responsible for the unpaid costs?
If much about this proposal is vague, it is clear that the main impetus is the hunger of the state and land trusts for federal funds to tie up local forest land, rather than a desire to improve our local economy or make our towns stronger. But is a large-scale land protection initiative really needed? More than 100,000 of the 280,000 acres of woodlands are now permanently protected. Much of the balance can never be developed due to site conditions (steep slopes, wetlands, ledge, proximity to streams, etc.). How much is enough? How much is too much?
Most towns in this region are not being overwhelmed by development. Local schools suffer from shrinking, not growing, enrollments and as The Recorder has noted, fire departments and other organizations have declining numbers of volunteers because so many residents must commute outside the area due to lack of local jobs. Instead of having concrete plans how to improve the rural economy or attract new businesses, the proposal is vague beyond creating a visitors center.
Even as a concept aimed at strengthening the local forest industry, it fails to address the reasons that industry declined in recent decades: poor local low grade markets, high energy costs, outdated equipment, lack of capital and excessive regulation, particularly compared to states like Vermont just 20 miles away. Why would we think that the industry would be helped if the underlying problems haven’t changed?
We should be skeptical of the benefit from a federal forest here of any type. The objectives of the proposed partnership can be achieved in other ways with fewer and clearer conditions. While landowners may like to be paid to conserve their woods, would they want to deal with the controversies and litigation that dog national forests in Vermont and New Hampshire? Will a large bureaucracy in Washington respond to the needs of small towns and landowners in Franklin County better than those in Boston that frustrate us now?
Federal money isn’t free and any project using national forest funding will come with entangling complications for both landowners and towns. The Forest Service manual detailing the laws applicable to national forests is 800 pages long and some of those will surely apply to any quasi-national forest created here.
To decide if such a national forest makes sense, each community needs to have a local dialogue about what mix of land conservation, economic development and housing development is appropriate to the vitality and future of the town. Which woods, farms or resource areas would we most like to see protected? Where would be the best locations for new businesses, including resource-based businesses like a saw mill, wood pellet plant, or furniture maker? Which areas are most suitable to build homes for the next generation?
Conserving open space is only one part of building vibrant communities. It is just as important to conserve and grow jobs and the tax base to create flourishing towns and neighborhoods where people want to live and work.
Gregory Cox and his family have managed woodlands in Hawley for more than 40 years. He serves as the Hawley fire chief and is program director for the Massachusetts Forest Alliance. For information about the Forest Alliance, see www.massforestalliance.org.