Woodland economy program under fire

  • Middle Road leading into Hawley State Forest. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Published: 5/5/2017 11:04:05 PM

The Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership’s aim is to enhance the economic development and preservation of privately owned woodland in 21 towns in the area.

But the 3½-year-old joint effort by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and Berkshire Regional Planning Commission with Franklin Land Trust faces criticism as it advances legislation for state designation and potentially state and federal funding.

With a public information session on that legislation Tuesday from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Berkshire East ski lodge in Charlemont, the partnership faces leafleting, picketing and a campaign to encourage the Legislature to defeat the bill.

The partnership of towns — from Leyden, Shelburne and Conway westward to the New York State line — describes itself as working to “increase economic development related to forestry and natural-resource-based tourism, support forest conservation on private lands and use of sustainable forestry practices and improve fiscal stability and sustainability of the towns.”

Yet a Leverett-based group, Mass. Forest Rescue, focused on one of the project’s 11 key elements: “Promotion of forestry, forestry-related manufacturing, and/or research for new technologies related to forest-based products ...”

Beth Adams of the self-described “collaborative campaign to protect and restore Massachusetts forests,” has described House Bill 2932, submitted by Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, as “a fraudulent bill, which seeks to reach its goal by deceptive means.” Her handout depicts the partnership as a Trojan Horse and notes that while the bill “never mentions ‘wood heat’ or ‘wood energy,’ a project description mentions wood heat 26 times and pellets 40 times.”

Franklin Regional Planning Director Margaret Sloan said, “It’s hard to understand how they’re interpreting this.” She adds, “The project has always been a compilation of different ideas from community members” raised at 50 public meetings held throughout the project area of 11 western Franklin County and 10 Berkshire County towns.

A state-sponsored study of a “community-scale” wood pellet manufacturing plant that could make use of low-grade wood from private woodlots is under way by the University of Massachusetts Clean Energy Extension, looking at potential demand for wood heating for municipal buildings and other large-scale users around the heavily wooded towns, including the impact on air emissions from high-efficiency wood-burning equipment, plus the economic feasibility and environmental effects.

Completion of those studies has been delayed, Sloan said, but one done for the state Department of Energy Resources a year ago found that if there were a wood-pellet factory, it could draw on an estimated supply of 193,000 tons of low-grade green wood that could be sustainably harvested from privately owned woodland around the region.

Sloan says these are merely feasibility studies, and wood burning is just one part of a broader effort that could bring a U.S. Forest Service demonstration center for sustainable woodlot-management and forestry practices as well, as driver of tourism.

“It’s a very cutting-edge study being done by UMass to evaluate air emissions from energy-efficient wood heat and oil,” she said, including monitoring of air-quality over two heating seasons.

Adams has written to the Legislature’s Energy, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee criticizing “a wasteful spending bill that sets up a $6 million fund with a control board largely consisting of special interests,” while “worsening climate change for all of us.”

But Sloan points out no money has been projected for a pellet-making plant, nor is there any decision to go ahead with one. The business plan for a partnership, which would require a vote by affected towns to join after a bill passes, focuses around conservation restrictions, forestry business grants, municipal grants and establishing a visitor-research-marketing center.

COG Executive Director Linda Dunlavy said Adams’ comparison of the partnership to a now-defunct commercial-scale biomass project proposed for Greenfield is “like apples and oranges.”

She acknowledged that a state program to help schools like Hawlemont and Sanderson Academy replace inefficient oil furnaces with wood-fired boilers was “admittedly kind of bad timing. This isn’t related to that … but if you were trying to find a link, your brain could make that leap.”

Berkshire Regional Planning’ Assistant Director Thomas Matuszko said, “The wood heat is very much a secondary aspect of this project. The broader long-term impact will be by good forest management, by the recreational benefits coming out of this and … having stronger locally based businesses.”

Dunlavy added, “The towns see this as an opportunity to get some technical assistance and resources for some of the most distressed communities in our region, as a way to support the rural economy and preserve forests.”

Still, Adams writes in one of her fliers, “One feature exposing the Partnership as unsustainable is the unacknowledged collateral biodiversity destabilization and losses, which occur as the result of every logging operation and would worsen prospects for a healthy future for humans.”

Arthur Schwenger of Heath, a partnership advisory committee member, says, “A lot of people like wilderness, and they’d rather not touch anything, but at the present time, most of our forests, other than those that are in the National Park System, are managed one way or another. We’re not talking of tearing all the forests down and burning them up. … A lot of the objections are based on potential and fears. To be realistic, you have to back off from the extreme fears and talk about what’s real and what’s actually happening in the long-run. This woodlands partnership seems to be just that: trying to figure out where we are now, what are good practices, what are bad practices, and how can we best utilize the woodlands that we do have so they are sustainable.”

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