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National forest meetings planned in area

The 11 Franklin County towns that could become host to a new type of national forest will have meetings beginning as early as next week to discuss the proposal following two introductory informational sessions in November.

The Franklin Regional Council of Governments is planning a session Tuesday in Charlemont as the first of four community meetings scheduled in January and February to explore local interest for a proposed national forest designation. Even as those meetings in Charlemont, Buckland, Conway and Shelburne are scheduled, more are foreseen in Ashfield, Colrain, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, Monroe and Rowe in March and April, and others are planned in the nine Berkshire County towns as part of a state planning grant.

“The town-by-town meetings are focused on seeing what level of interest is there, so we’ll know by the end of the 20 meetings if there is interest in proceeding,” said Franklin Regional Planning Director Margaret Sloan. “We don’t know what the outcome will be.”

Working with $149,000 in funding from the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the COG planners, together with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and the Franklin Land Trust, are working in local towns to discuss how the voluntary conservation-restriction program could turn one of western Massachusetts’ strongest assets into an economic advantage.

The “new model” of federal forest involvement would be built on retaining private woodland ownership to allow recreational tourism, forest management, and research on new, forest-related, manufacturing technologies.

Tuesday’s meeting is planned for Hawlemont Regional School, Buckland’s meeting is planned for Feb. 3 in Buckland Town Hall; and Conway’s meeting for Feb. 11, all from 6 to 8 p.m. Snow dates are scheduled for the following evening, except for Buckland, where a snow date is Feb. 13.

At the November informational meetings, Sloan said, there was interest by town officials, woodland owners and foresters in learning more about the concept.

The upcoming meetings are open to everyone in the community, with each session planned to discuss interest in that particular town, Sloan said. If someone owns woodland in several towns or has a tourism-related businesses in more than one town, she encouraged them to attend several meetings.

The U.S. Forest Service could provide funding to buy conservation easements from willing land owners, and may also establish a visitors center, a demonstration forest and a technical resource center, and Sloan encouraged anyone with ideas for where those could be located to attend the appropriate meeting.

The state Legislature, as well as Congress, would need to pass legislation creating the new forest designation.

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

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