Citing biomass concerns, Buckland Selectboard to let TM vote decide on woodlands partnership 

  • The Buckland Selectboard declined to vote on joining the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership, as six other Franklin County towns have done. Instead, the board will send the vote to a Town Meeting at a date to be determined. Staff File photo

Staff Writer
Published: 7/31/2019 9:54:23 PM
Modified: 7/31/2019 9:54:12 PM

BUCKLAND — Following some objections to the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership, the Selectboard will send the issue to a Town Meeting rather than vote on the matter itself, making it the first county town to do so.

Concerns mainly pertained to the partnership’s support for wood burning as a source of fuel, and plan to encourage its use.

The Selectboard has not yet decided whether the vote will take place at a Special or an Annual Town Meeting.

So far, six Franklin County towns have signed on to the partnership: Ashfield, Charlemont, Conway, Heath, Rowe and Shelburne. All towns did so by Selectboard vote.

The remaining Franklin County towns have yet to join: Colrain, Hawley, Leyden, Monroe and Rowe.

Despite these concerns, the partnership — convened in 2013 to raise money to conserve forestland and promote economic development in the region — is going ahead, as 11 of 21 Berkshire and Franklin county towns have signed on, said Peggy Sloan, director of planning and development at the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. A state bill passed last year specified that 11 of 21 towns need to approve the measure by Selectboard or Town Meeting for the partnership to go ahead.

Buckland’s Board of Health unanimously opposes the partnership, citing concerns about the environmental and public health impacts of biomass. An alternate member of the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership Advisory Committee, Janet Sinclair, expressed similar reservations.

“We found, when we did our research, that biomass is in fact the dirtiest form of energy production,” Board of Health Chairman Richard Warner said. “On par with coal, and probably with a worse carbon footprint than coal.”

He added that the state has for some years been erroneously pitching biomass as a “clean and renewable resource” and incentivizing its use.

Environmental advocacy groups have also raised concerns about the impact of biomass on the Earth and public health. For example, last month, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Dogwood Alliance and the Southern Environmental Law Center published a report opposing wood burning for environmental reasons. Citing “multiple independent peer-reviewed studies,” the study wrote that “burning biomass from forests for electricity creates more carbon dioxide emissions than burning coal.”

Sinclair has been opposed to the partnership since she attended some informational meetings on the matter several years ago, she said. Her reason is similar to the health board: biomass.

She called the partnership a “vehicle” to “promote biomass burning in our region,” especially as global warming tightens its grasp.

“With our climate crisis,” she said, “it’s hard to be more stupid than to be taking public money to pay for wood burning for heat or electricity.”

Sinclair also took issue with the partnership’s claims that it began as a “grass-roots effort,” saying it was conceived and signed into law by state legislators.

While the partnership has not found funding and has no immediate plans to begin work, a “frequently asked questions” section on its website outlines how it intends to propagate wood burning as an alternative fuel source. According to its web page, community members showed interest in burning wood instead of oil for fuel at interest meetings. To encourage wood burning, the partnership proposed to create a “multi-purpose Forest Center,” which it said was a popular suggestion among townspeople. The Forest Center would “market local wood products” among other functions including offering information about tourism, conservation and climate change.

To address concerns about wood burning, the partnership ordered the University of Massachusetts Department of Environmental Health Sciences to do a study to assess the public health impacts, Sloan said. She said results will be released this fall.

The partnership’s Advisory Committee, which includes residents from 21 towns, also recommended adding an individual to the board with knowledge of “ecosystem functions, carbon cycling and/or climate change,” the website states. And finally, the partnership is considering introducing a “carbon market credit project” to “focus on the storage of carbon” and “generate revenues for forest landowners,” its website states.

While opinions on the partnership differed at Buckland’s Selectboard meeting, everyone agreed that the partnership was complex and difficult to understand. Selectboard members concurred, saying that they weren’t sure about their position on the matter. Members said they wanted to allow townspeople to decide.

Selectman Barry Del Castilho said that based on the way the partnership was presented by its proponents, it would be “very difficult not to support an effort like this.” However, Del Castilho said he had heard a “very different perspective” offered by Sinclair at the previous meeting and wanted to allow townspeople to decide.

“We’re not capable of sorting out those issues tonight, or to take it on,” Del Castilho said.

Selectboard Chairman Zachary Turner agreed, saying he would “personally rather refer this to a Town Meeting vote.”

“I don’t feel comfortable, myself, making that decision,” Turner said. “I feel it’s something that our community as a whole should decide.”

Reach Grace Bird at
gbird@recorder.com or
413-772-0261, ext. 280.


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