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Forest conservation study looks at private land

Franklin and Berkshire County planners, together with the Franklin Land Trust, will be exploring ways over the next 12 to 18 months that privately-owned land could get “national forest” designation to bring federal funding and technical assistance to better manage those forested acres.

With $149,000 in funding from the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs — about $70,000 of it for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments — the planning groups will work with 11 Franklin County and nine Berkshire County towns to discuss how the conservation restriction program would work.

Informational sessions are planned for Nov. 19 at 5:30 p.m. in McCann Technical High School in North Adams and Nov. 20 at 5:30 p.m. at the Shelburne-Buckland Community Center, 53 Main St., in Shelburne Falls. Towns included in the study area include Ashfield, Buckland, Charlemont, Colrain, Conway, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, Monroe, Rowe, and Shelburne in Franklin County, as well as Adams, Cheshire, Clarksburg, Florida, New Ashford, North Adams, Savoy, Williamstown, and Windsor in Berkshire County.

Franklin Regional Planning Director Peggy Sloan said that the idea, which has been discussed for years, would be to turn one of western Massachusetts’s strongest assets — its extensive privately-owned woodlands — into a nationally recognized economic advantage, focused on “forest-based economic development like recreational tourism, forest management, and research on new forest-related manufacturing technologies.”

New model

When the idea last was floated in 2009, it met with opposition from town officials concerned that it might involve taking additional private land off local tax rolls, without specific proposals laid out. The latest proposal, Sloan said, “is an opportunity to think about how a new model for a U.S. Forest Service designation would work but have the lands remain in private ownership.

She said this would be “a new model” of federal forest involvement and a chance to bring the Forest Service, with branches that work on state and private forests as well as on research and development, into a state that has no national forest land. It could possibly bring in federal resources for a visitor information center and for technical assistance that could help develop forestry-based businesses.

In 2002, the state began, and then abandoned, discussions with the Forest Service about extending the Green Mountain National Forest south of the Vermont line in Franklin and Berkshire counties as a way to protect additional forestland while bringing federal dollars into the state.

Asked whether forests designated for federal conservation could make them eligible for reduced tax assessments, Sloan said, “Chances are, they’re probably already in (state) Chapter 61 (forestry tax break program), so I don’t know if there would be that significant a tax impact.”

The plan is to present the initial information to town officials at the sessions to see if they are interested in further discussions, which would come in a series of smaller meetings in the individual communities that are interested. Sloan said there is no target acreage, and she doesn’t believe that the lands would have to be contiguous, but there would likely be a minimum number of the 20 towns interested for a proposal to go to the state Legislature for approval.

Voluntary

Participation in the program would be entirely voluntary, said Franklin Land Trust Executive Director Richard Hubbard.

“We’re excited,” he said. “We have so many more landowners coming to us (seeking conservation restrictions) than we have resources. This could be a new source of funds coming into this area for land conservation, and it’s also apt to be a very powerful economic driver, too, encouraging more tourism.”

Among the questions that will be ironed out in coming months is what would be included in federal conservation restrictions and how much low-impact public recreational access they would provide for.

Although the Forest Service “wasn’t fully on board” with the state’s earlier proposals, Hubbard said “they seem to be fully embracing the idea, and actually excited by a new approach to creating a national forest based on conservation restrictions.”

He said he believes the Forest Service sees protecting forested land through conservation restrictions rather than buying property as an approach they could ultimately use in other parts of the country.

Fragmentation danger

“The biggest danger to woodland is fragmentation,” Hubbard said, “and it doesn’t take very long for what looks like contiguous land to be chopped up into smaller pieces. Then it becomes useless for forest management purposes, and potentially for wildlife. This would be a way to fill in some of the ‘holes.’”

Although there is talk about having a small property where the Forest Service could have a visitor’s center, Hubbard said the idea of the federal government taking any land “is totally off the table. No one’s envisioning this as a situation where ultimately the feds own a lot of land out here.”

Sloan said federal conservation restrictions could not only be added to what’s available to protect forest land — among the clear goals of a recently completed regional sustainable master plan — but it could also help provide technical help in case there is an invasive species or particular pest that is threatening woodlands in the state.

Among the more esoteric examples of tapping the region’s forests for their economic development potential, said Sloan, is wood-based nanotechology research, in which natural polymers like cellulose and lignin are being researched for their strength, lightness and the fact that, unlike petroleum-based materials, they are renewable.

Both Sloan and Hubbard said they’re excited about the possibility of federal research here into eventually using “wood crystals” in the manufacture of car bumpers, concrete or other products.

You can reach Richie Davis at
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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