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Cooperative tone at forestry hearing

SHELBURNE FALLS — A proposed “innovative approach” to creating a national forest in western Massachusetts for privately held woodland in western Franklin and Northern Berkshire counties drew about 100 property owners, town officials and others to an informational meeting Wednesday night. But instead of the confrontation that some organizers imagined, the two-hour discussion turned into a frank give-and-take about the need to balance land conservation with effective ways of helping the shaky wood-products industry and towns that are strapped to provide basic services to residents.

The session, dubbed “An Oppor-tunity to Increase Natural Resource-Based Economic Development and Forest Conservation” was held by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and the Franklin Land Trust as part of a state-funded initiative to look at creating a patchwork of protected wooded parcels in 11 Franklin and nine Berkshire County towns. A similar meeting in North Adams, conducted by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, attracted 40 people Monday night.

Participation will be up to the towns, including Ashfield, Buckland, Charlemont, Colrain, Conway, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, Monroe, Rowe and Shelburne, as well as up to landowners in those towns who choose to apply for conservation restrictions that would be held by the state or the land trust, said Franklin Regional Planning Director Margaret Sloan.

The 20 towns in the two-county area have a total of 280,000 forested acres, Sloan said, and the U.S. Forest Service is interested in developing a new model for bringing its three divisions to work together for the first time on a privately owned network of parcels to help boost tourism and enhance the forest-based economy through technical assistance, a demonstration forest and research and development, with the potential for a federally owned property of 1,000 to 2,000 acres, possibly with a campground and a visitors center.

Although one of the main concerns expressed was over the loss of tax revenue in the towns, Sloan said most privately owned forestland is already under a Chapter 61 reduced assessment program. Other concerns included that the program could interfere with working forestry and require additional services such as increased road maintenance and emergency services.

But she said that the proposed program — which would require development of a regional plan and approval at the state and federal levels — could also make additional funding available for conservation restrictions that are in demand by property owners.

The state wants to see participating landowners provide additional public access to their property, she added, but that could be limited to certain kinds of recreational activity on a limited portion of the property.

Ashfield Selectboard member Ron Coler suggested that the state’s definition for public access should be broadened to simply include the value of having large tracts of additional forestland preserved as a carbon sink.

In response to criticism that vast portions of some Franklin County towns, like Hawley, are state owned, with the state’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes program perpetually underfunded, Tom Matuszko of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission said there was discussion Monday about trying to set up a reserve fund to augment those payments and possibly funneling some of the conservation restriction funding to help start that as a pool.

Other suggestions included having part of the federal technical assistance available from the program come in the form of feasibility studies that could help start up a sawmill, a wood pellet processor or other businesses that could help strengthen the forest products industry here, or the state could help set up a program, as Vermont has, to help schools heat with wood furnaces to save on fuel costs while also helping the local wood industry.

“One of the biggest problems in this area,” said Greg Cox of Hawley, “is that unless there are better markets for low-grade (wood, which he estimated is half of what he grows) everything else is restricted by these trees taking up space. It’s important to use more of this low grade here because it costs a lot to ship it.”

Hawlemont Regional School, he said, uses 30,000 gallons of heating oil a year, when it could easily be burning wood.

“We’re essentially in the wood basket of Massachusetts,” he said.

Whitty Sanford of Conway likened the proposal to the Conte National Forest, which she said encompasses 451 communities in four states and helped provide additional resources including technical assistance to help improve the condition of the forests.

In response to a comment from Jonathan Healy of Charlemont, who complained that the history of state management of forests is poor management of timber that could be sold off, Matuszko said that having national forest designation in the region could be used to push the state to improve its management practices.

Healy said that conservation restrictions could be a good vehicle for economic development in the region. But some people, like Howard Boyden of Conway, emphasized that it’s important for landowners to balance land under conservation restrictions with land on which they have more financial options if things go sour.

Folks should be very wary about promises from the federal government about spending money on this plan. Western wildfires are burning through more and more of the Forest Service's budget year after year. This year, some $600 million was diverted from recreation and other uses: http://www.usnews.com/news/newsgram/articles/2013/08/22/wildfires-exhausting-forest-service-budget-the-us-forest-service-is-diverting-600-million-to-fight-more-than-50-fires-across-the-west

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