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Editorial: Protecting woodlands and their owners

The woodlands of western Massachusetts are an asset that deserve protection, whether the land is publicly or privately owned.

But ensuring that protection has to be a matter of balance between all represented interests. That consideration should be at the forefront during discussions of possibly creating a national park involving private lands in Franklin and Berkshire counties.

It’s certainly an idea that’s interesting. Under the auspices of the U.S. Forest Service, we would knit together a number of parcels, some under private ownership, to create a national forest — which might lead to a number of benefits involving conservation and tourism. It’s an intriguing idea deserving of further study.

But we can also understand how a private landowner might be leery about this idea, from a couple of directions.

First, there’s the whole question of what does participating in this endeavor mean to property rights and the ability of the owner to manage and/or use their land?

At least one area landowner has some real concerns about what this means.

“The impact of your proposed National Forest on WD Cowls will be jeopardizing our land use, opportunity, and values on 1,387.8 acres of working forests in the towns of Ashfield; Buckland; Charlemont; Colrain; Conway; and Heath,” wrote Cinda Jones, president of W.D. Cowls Inc. Land Co., in an email to Robert O’Connor, forest and land policy director for the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and EOEEA Secretary Richard Sullivan.

“If you designate a National Forest in western MA, even if we opt out and aren’t part of the designation, we will be affected by regional economic drain, view shed protections, and zoning redistributions.”

Jones’ concerns are ones shared by other landowners in area and it is a reasonable question, just like the one expressed by town officials who are worried about the loss of tax revenue. Any reduction of property tax money deserves a quid pro quo that ensures no loss of money for the towns. And it can’t be left to state’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes program — which history shows often falls short.

Land owners will also have to come to grips with the idea of allowing public access to parts of their property.

But clearly the biggest hurdle is economic, one that cannot be dismissed lightly. If the Forest Service and other entities who see this forest plan as innovative move toward protection of an important asset here, officials must be sure that the landowners and communities involved are well protected.

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