Cowls’ owner decries forest protections

Even before information sessions this week on a plan for the U.S. Forest Service to create a western Massachusetts presence made up of privately owned woodlands, smoke signals are rising from the state’s largest property owner.

Today’s 5:30 p.m. informational meeting at Shelburne-Buckland Community Center in Shelburne Falls, like one held Tuesday in North Adams, will unveil a state-funded effort to create a network of protected, privately owned forest land in 11 Franklin County and nine Berkshire County towns. The $149,000 grant from the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, would create “a new model” of federal forest involvement in the region, said Franklin regional Planning Director Peggy Sloan.

But Cinda Jones, president of Amherst-based W.D. Cowls Inc. Land Co., and a former vice president of the National Forest Foundation, has written to state environmental officials blasting the voluntary proposal for Ashfield, Buckland, Charlemont, Colrain, Conway, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, Monroe, Rowe and Shelburne, as well as other communities before even hearing its details, on the basis of similar efforts in 2002 and 2009.

“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,” Jones wrote in an email last week 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, viewshed protections, and zoning redistributions.”

Jones writes, “Timber is especially not a sustainable business within National Forest boundaries, whether the land is public or privately owned.” Because every cutting plan filed on land designated as a National Forest is protested by national environmental groups, she said “it takes many years for cutting to happen — if it ever does. This causes what sawmills are left, to go under, for lack of wood availability (just like MA sawmills have already measurably suffered and closed as state forest management slowed, halted, and then regained slow progress). If you think the amount of management being done on commonwealth land is pitiful, know on federally designated land this problem will be compounded.”

Jones said that O’Connor has rolled out what seems to be similar to proposals of the past decade and landowners have replied that they’re not interested.

“We’re playing a game of ‘Whack-a-Mole’ with him,” she added. “If the state really wants to increase natural resource-based economic development,” then it should open up its own lands for timber harvesting and other economic use, “at least in the northwestern part of the state.”

Jones, who signs her letter “9th Generation Massachusetts forest land owner and manager,” criticized the state for doing a “miserable job” allowing timber harvests on state-designated lands. “The lack of state performance and timber sales has directly caused the forest products manufacturing industry to fail in this state. ... In our experience state and federal forest based economies are recreationally not materials based. And they’re not good for private landowners.”

Yet last year, in what was described as the largest conservation deal in state history, Jones worked with the state to sell conservation rights for nearly 3,500 acres of forest in Leverett and Shutesbury for $8.8 million — including $5 million from the U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program — to create the Paul C. Jones Working Forest, centered on Leverett’s Brushy Mountain.

Under terms of that conservation restriction, the land will continue to be logged by Cowls, although it is open for hiking, fishing, birding and other recreational activities.

Sloan said the hope is to present the initial information to town officials at this week’s meetings to see if they’re interested in further discussions, which would come in a series of smaller sessions in the individual communities. She said there is no target acreage, and she doesn’t believe that the lands would have to be contiguous.

Franklin Land Trust Executive Director Richard Hubbard said federal funding for conservation restrictions to private landowners — similar to the federal funding paid to Jones for the conservation rights to the Brushy Mountain property — could help meet the demand that the land trust sees from property owners who want to protect their forest land.

You can reach Richie Davis at: or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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