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Editorial: Land protection comes with a price

It’s hard to argue against preservation of our forests for their ecological value and beauty, as well as their history. But there should be an understanding that such protection does come with a price, one that can put a significant squeeze on some communities.

That appreciation seems to be missing in the recent Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision overturning a state Appellate Tax Board ruling allowing Hawley to assess 120 acres of woodland owned by the New England Forestry Foundation — and to send the foundation a property tax bill of $173 on a parcel known as Stetson-Phelps Memorial Forest.

Hawley felt justified in sending the bill because town officials felt this particular group had not done enough to let the public know its land was open for recreational use.

The case turned into something of a cause celebre amongst conservation and land preservation groups, including the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts Audubon Society, because they were afraid that if was allowed to stand, Hawley’s move would spread like wildfire, resulting in these nonprofit organizations having to spend valuable and limited money on tax instead of being able to purchase additional land.

“It would have been a huge change to the landscape of Massachusetts and the viability of conservation charities,” said Frank Lowenstein, deputy director of the forestry foundation, in published reports.

In this case, the court unanimously agreed that the New England Forestry Foundation had made the public aware that this land was open for public use.

More to the point, “By holding land in its natural pristine condition and thereby protecting wildlife habitats, filtering the air and water supply, and absorbing carbon emissions, combined with engaging in sustainable harvests to ensure the longevity of the forest, NEFF engages in charitable activities of a type that may benefit the general public,” opined Justice Francis X. Spina.

That “general public,” however, doesn’t apparently include rural communities like Hawley, which struggle with their own money issues and the ability to pay for schools and services — and who are seeing more and more of the land within their borders come under the “protection” of nonprofit groups.

No one is suggesting that land shouldn’t be preserved or protected. But one would think that nonprofit organizations want to be seen as a member of the community and not as outside entities that have no concept of what pressures and struggles are occurring in their host towns.

Becoming a partner in finding ways to help cash-strapped towns would be a step toward a better balance — and the lessening the feeling of “us versus them.”

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