Wendell residents argue merits of ‘forest protection’ bill

  • Janet Sinclair asks the Wendell Selectboard to rescind their opposition to H.897, which she authored. STAFF PHOTO/DAVID MCLELLAN

  • Wendell activist and biologist Bill Stubblefield, right, argues passing H.897 would be beneficial in fighting climate change before the Selectboard on Wednesday. At left is Christine Heard and at center is Laurie DiDonato. STAFF PHOTO/DAVID MCLELLAN

  • Wendell resident Sally Stuffin says she is “incredibly sad” to learn the Wendell Selectboard opposed H.897. STAFF PHOTO/DAVID MCLELLAN

Staff Writer
Published: 1/9/2020 10:33:22 PM
Modified: 1/9/2020 10:32:44 PM

WENDELL — Should Massachusetts’ state forests be off limits to commercial logging?

The Wendell Selectboard says no, but many residents say yes.

The board’s decision to send a letter to legislators opposing House Bill 897 caused a stir with residents who support the bill, as well as defense from residents who say the Selectboard is right to oppose it. At Wednesday’s meeting, neighbors came before the Selectboard to argue their respective positions.

“I was incredibly sad about that letter,” resident Sally Stuffin told the Selectboard. “I don’t understand how the Wendell Selectboard wrote that letter when they say they talked to Wendell residents. You didn’t talk to me.”

The proposed bill, H.897, is called “An Act Relative to Forest Protection,” and it designates all of the roughly 610,000 acres of state forest land as “parks and reserves,” prohibiting commercial logging.

The bill does not apply to MassWildlife lands managed by the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, but lands managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), like Wendell State Forest. It allows logging related to invasive species, erosion, fires and wildlife habitats, but explicitly prohibits commercial logging.

Its purpose is to allow trees to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, a phenomenon accepted by the U.N., the state of Massachusetts and many climate scientists as important in combating climate change.

“It’s using our forests as carbon sinks,” said Janet Sinclair, a Shelburne Falls activist who authored the bill with Michael Kellett, executive director of RESTORE: The North Woods.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Susannah Whipps, I-Athol, with 15 co-sponsors, including Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, Rep. Paul Mark, D-Pittsfield, and Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton.

However, the Wendell Selectboard penned a letter to legislators opposing the bill. The Selectboard in nearby Warwick, which is similarly dominated by state forest land, also sent a letter opposing the bill, recognizing DCR as the accepted stewards of the forest best-equipped to make decisions about forest management.

“We all feel that climate change is important, crucial and a serious challenge. In that way, I think we all agree on that,” said Wendell Selectboard Chair Dan Keller.

But several residents took issue with the Selectboard’s letter, arguing that townspeople should be allowed to vote on whether to support the bill at a Town Meeting.

“There is no pressing need for the Wendell Selectboard to take a position on this,” said resident Morgan Mead.

“You’re usurping the prerogatives of your office by putting the town seal on your personal opinion,” he added. “Rescind this letter. Take no position.”

“It disturbs me,” resident James Thornley said of the letter, asking if any people “outside” the town influenced the Selectboard’s decision.

Keller said the Selectboard chose to send the letter after hearing from residents who oppose the bill. Indeed, several residents showed up at Wednesday’s meeting to support the Selectboard’s decision and oppose the bill.

“Commercial timber harvests are a small but important tool in the management of our state forests,” said resident Dan Lahey.

Lahey suggested a “Forest Futures Visioning Process,” like that held by DCR in 2010, as the best way to bring foresters, climate scientists and the public together to determine the best future policies for Massachusetts state forests.

Dave Richard, a Wendell resident and management forester who used to work for DCR, said he has 45 years of forestry experience and that H.897 was written with “tunnel vision.” He said the bill ignores the safety hazards of letting forests remain uncut, especially in places like Wendell where state forest land often borders public roads.

“A lot of road miles being bordered by unmanaged forest will cause serious problems,” said Richard, adding that unmanaged forests would lead to more power outages.

Richard also said carbon sequestration peaks in trees between 30 and 70 years old, and very old trees do not necessarily increase the carbon they are sequestering.

But proponents of the bill say leaving forests uncut is a cheap and scientifically proven way to combat climate change.

“It’s abundantly clear that keeping a forest intact does more for carbon sequestration than any logging regime,” said resident Bill Stubblefield, who holds a doctorate in biology from Harvard University.

The bill comes on the heals of a logging project in Wendell State Forest that targeted an 80-acre old oak stand. The DCR project was vigorously protested for a year, with a group called the Wendell State Forest Alliance holding rallies, circulating petitions and even getting arrested while trying to physically block loggers at the site. That project finished up in September, and the Wendell State Forest Alliance is currently suing DCR.

However, Sinclair said the bill has nothing to do with the Wendell State Forest logging project, and that she in fact supports the DCR as forest managers.

“This bill, when we were writing it, it was not a response to the Wendell State Forest logging job,” she said, adding that the bill includes many “flexible” forest management provisions.

Sinclair said there is always opposition to similar bills before they are passed, but none after they are passed.

“I don’t hear anyone say, ‘We should start logging in the Adirondacks,’” she said. “It is time in 2020 to be thinking about our state land and using it differently than in 1908 or 1903 (when policies were written).”

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.

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