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Perschel/My Turn: Healthy forests, healthy towns

On May 15, the Supreme Judicial Court of the commonwealth upheld what has been standard practice for 150 years — that property owned by charities for their charitable purposes is tax exempt. Conservation charities — otherwise known as land trusts — have been treated just like other charities since the very idea of a conservation charity was invented here in Massachusetts in the 1890s.

New England Forestry Foundation is proud to be one of the oldest land trusts in the region, chartered in 1944. Land trusts have helped preserve treasured properties across the state and the idea has spread from Massachusetts to influence the nation’s landscape. Land trusts protect the watersheds of towns across western Massachusetts. They have protected farms like Indian Line Farm in Egremont — the first community-supported agriculture farm in the nation. They protect properties used for community recreation — like the nearly 150 community forests owned by New England Forestry Foundation, all of which are open to the public.

For New England Forestry Foundation, throughout our 70-year existence, small towns have been our natural partners in our dual mission: to conserve New England’s forests and to bring excellent forestry to New England’s forest businesses and forest landowners. Now we’re ready to redouble our efforts to help rural towns, forest landowners and forest-related businesses. Charitable donations help us provide the services that strengthen landowner finances, support local businesses, create new jobs and improve local economies — all necessary ingredients for economically healthy rural towns. Here are seven tangible efforts by the New England Forestry Foundation that our charitable status could enable us to undertake to help New England towns:

∎ Reviving local forest-related businesses. In the last few decades, dozens of local sawmills and the jobs related to them have been lost. We support the Massachusetts Forestry Alliance and the Massachusetts DCR efforts to buy local wood and bring wood manufacturing back to western Massachusetts.

∎ Obtaining income streams from existing town forests or creating new ones. Many Massachusetts towns own forest land but some of these are not managed for income from timber. We can help. We also have expertise in the state land-acquisition programs available to help towns acquire or add to town forests.

∎ Doubling the growth and tripling the value of local timber. We can help forest owners grow more of the finest hardwoods in the world by applying the best forest-management practices. This is core to our mission and we provide training and information to both landowners and foresters.

∎ Allowing landowners to tap into the carbon market. The efforts to address climate change — starting at the state level — have created a market for storing carbon, and trees store carbon.

We’ve learned how to sell forest carbon credits to California’s cap-and-trade program through a pilot program on one of our New Hampshire forests. Small landowners can’t tap this market due to high administrative costs, but NEFF could help landowners’ aggregate small properties to access a stream of income not now available.

∎  Alerting urban or suburban residents to forest benefits provided by rural landowners and towns. Rural towns provide benefits for all of New England that are rarely recognized by residents of, in a decision based in part on fundamental constitutional rights of Massachusetts citizens, more populated regions. Our newly released report, The Path To Sustainability, highlights all the values forest land delivers from water to wildlife to timber and argues that forests are key to a healthy and productive life for every resident, laying the groundwork for support of rural landowners and rural towns by the politically powerful urban regions.

∎  Creating new income streams for forest landowners and towns. Payment for carbon is just one new market that is opening up. The Portland, Maine, water company is making incentive payments available to landowners to improve water quality protection. Landowners in other parts of the country are tapping into new markets for wetland and wildlife mitigation.

∎  Selling development rights while maintaining forest ownerships. Conservation restrictions allow cash-strapped landowners to receive payment for rights they don’t intend to exercise, while retaining their privacy and their right to manage their land. NEFF can help locate funding through federal and state programs or private donations, and deliver it to rural landowners.

This brings more income into local economies and prevents the cost of servicing new houses and families.

We look forward to a dialogue with New England’s towns about how to maximize the benefits that forests and forest conservation can continue to provide to the towns, thanks to the Supreme Judicial Court decision that keeps the financial arrangements between towns and nonprofit conservation groups exactly as they have been.

Robert Perschel is the executive director of the New England Forestry Foundation.

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