Woodland Partners seek US Forest Service funds

  • Foliage as seen from the boardwalk of the Hawley Bog. Recorder file photo/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Published: 5/10/2017 10:01:14 PM

CHARLEMONT — Even if a 21-town effort to conserve private forest ownership while promoting nature-based economic development fails to win $24 million in U.S. Forest Service funding, as is hoped, the Mohawk Trail Woodland Partnership “has done some good so far,” Robert O’Connor of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation said Tuesday.

The partnership is responsible for getting about $1.4 million in federal grants to the Franklin Land Trust to help landowners improve wildlife habitat and control invasive species.

The $638,000 grant in early 2015 helps local landowners integrate sustainable forestry, enhanced wildlife habitat and renewable energy, and an $836,000 grant provides incentives to private landowners implementing wildlife habitat projects to open their land to fishing, hunting and wildlife viewing. Those efforts fit in with the partnership’s goals to support forest conservation and use of sustainable forestry practices on private lands, boost forest-based economic development and nature-based tourism as well as to improve fiscal stability in a region where per capita income is 22 percent lower than the state overall.

Despite federal budget tightening, presenters for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, which are proposing the three-year-old project along with the land trust, said they believe the U.S. Forest Service is interested in the project involving 11 West County towns because it offers a new approach for part of its mission — promoting sustainable forestry practices for privately owned woodlands.

But a first step, they told about 40 people attending an informational session at Berkshire East resort, is for the state Legislature to create the partnership, setting up a two-year process for towns in the delineated area to decide whether to opt in, and also to establish a $6 million trust fund, interest from which would be used to establish a technical assistance and tourism center, to create incentives for conservation restrictions and to loan money to forestry businesses, along with technical assistance grants and grants to participating towns.

“The legislation is key,” said Franklin Regional Planning Director Margaret Sloan. “One of the things we heard when we went out and talked to towns is that it isn’t going to be helpful if it’s just a grant here, a grant there. What we need is a long-term, sustained program.”

Despite repeated explanations that participants made clear in more than 50 planning meetings that they wanted no government taking of woodlands and that the region retain its rural character, concerns were voiced by some Tuesday that there was “an elephant in the room,” in the words of Buckland Health Board member Richard Warner.

“It seems forest-based economic development is really a euphemism, or a smokescreen, if you will, for wood-pellet production,” he said. “That seems to be the primary driver, economically, for increased use of forestry services here.”

But Sloan said that while using wood for heating was one of the areas of inquiry as part of the community-driven process, leading to a study being done into wood supply, heating demand and air quality impacts of  wood heat, it was “one idea” that came out of the process. “I don’t think it’s a primary driver,” she said, adding that research being done into wood-based polymers and other new technologies drawing on sustainably managed woodlots is as much of an economic driver, along with enhanced nature-based tourism.

“The main idea that came from those plans was keeping the rural life in both counties,” said O’Connor. “It’s a very high priority — farming, forestry, home businesses — that’s universally endorsed by everybody, that’s involved in those plans. I see this project helping a lot of small businesses, and collectively improving the situation in the region. … If wood heat was put in the plan, it was because it was mentioned, in meeting after meeting.”

“This has been an organic, rigorous process,” said partnership advisory board member Jonathan Healy of Charlemont. “Many of us appointed by local selectmen have been at 10 or 15 meetings …. There’s a lot of discussion of money and legislation, but there’s been a lot of positive things that have happened in the last couple of years” … that haven’t cost money, as a result of the communication, cooperation and cross-fertilization of ideas that have come through the process. And that’s pretty exciting, with exciting opportunities for not only rural economic development, but the proper use of resources, so this material around here doesn’t go to Canada, it sequesters carbon, stays in these buildings, and can be something to grow on, because we had a lot of missed opportunities out here with what happens to our forest resources. You just have to go up to (Interstate) 91 and see everything running up to Canada. This is a great start of something that might be successful.”

The legislation was endorsed Tuesday by Massachusetts Forest Alliance, the state’s largest forestry advocacy organization, which is one of the partners. It cited “benefits to local communities, woodland owners, the regional economy, and land conservation.”

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