The Northeast hemorrhages open space at an astounding rate. 40 acres bleed out every day in Massachusetts, while Connecticut's rate of land conversion is 45 acres. 60% of Connecticut's losses come from its rapidly vanishing and already cleared agricultural land, often assessed at more than $10,000/acre as developable real estate. At least 6,500 acres of forest land disappears in the Nutmeg State each year, while the reforesting trend in Massachusetts peaked more than a decade ago at about 68% of the Commonwealth's total land area and is now in decline. The forest has stopped expanding, yet there are now twice the number of forest landowners in Massachusetts as there were just ten years ago.
Our open space faces death by a thousand cuts, and despite impressive efforts by numerous conservation organizations and government agencies, land protection is an inadequate tourniquet. Development outpaces land protection in southern New England by at least twice the conservation rate, while exurban and rural sprawl fragment larger properties into parcels with lots of edges and smaller cores. Meanwhile, Massachusetts has cut its funding for open space conservation so dramatically that in 2003 it ranked 48th out of the 50 states in environmental spending as a proportion of the total budget. Federal funding resources for land protection are so curtailed that the President submitted his FY07 budget to Congress with just $2 million of the $10 million intended for the four Northeast states in the Highlands Initiative, and no Forest Legacy money at all for Connecticut's top conservation priority. The actual homeland grows less secure by the day.
These stark realities challenge us in the Northeast to make hard but strategic choices about how to allocate our limited conservation resources. Since becoming the Director of the Litchfield Hills Greenprint, I have not seen a land protection opportunity in Northwest Connecticut requiring less than seven figures to conserve. We could easily blow through 10 million dollars on one or two large land deals and still see our communities transformed by unchecked growth. Those kind of conservation dollars do not exist for the pace and quality of land protection that is required to maintain the ecological integrity of our landscapes and the character of our communities. We need a different approach.
Some conservation organizations have concluded that the best chance to secure a viable ecological base is to influence the management of already conserved lands and expand protection around those cores. A variant of this approach involves working with the largest private landowners- utility companies, timber interests, religious and educational non-profits, and a handful of private individuals- to place easements over their developable lands. This still requires substantial funding -often from public sources - and necessitates entry into the policy arena where, as in any complex negotiation, compromises are required to get the deal done.
This approach can produce dramatic results- particularly as measured in dollars and acres- when large areas are controlled by a single entity. Huge forest conservation efforts in Northern New England and the Adirondacks with state, non-profit and private partners have secured the protection of 20,000-acre forest cores where there will be no commercial forestry and an extensive area covered by forestry easements. These easements prevent development but may not represent the highest standards of silviculture. It is hard to prescribe practices in perpetuity today that may not represent best management practices in the future, but there is a trade-off involved in preventing development now and dealing with management of the resource later.
In Massachusetts, the Commonwealth received provisional green certification from the Forest Stewardship Council on all of its forest land: nearly 500,000 acres. One of the FSC requirements was to designate forest reserves where there would be no commercial timber harvests. The Nature Conservancy and other conservation interests are working with the Commonwealth to designate up to 20% of these state lands are large and small reserves. The remaining 400,000 acres of forest land would be potentially available for forestry activities.
The devil, as always, is in the details. Critics of the Commonwealth's land management record express strong reservations about the quality of silviculture and the rationale for certain forestry practices advocated by the State. Meanwhile, forestry occurs on many unprotected forest lands without the supervision of a licensed forester and driven by the financial interests of the landowner and the logger rather than the needs of the forest resource. Some are concerned that all the energy placed on designated forest reserves will distract attention from the real need for forestry reform across the Commonwealth. Clearly, quality silviculture is capable of sustaining many ecological qualities of our woodlands while providing economic benefits, but it is far from the current industry standard. The Forest Guild is in the forefront of advocating for requiring long-term forest management with cutting plans filed by licensed foresters and favoring uneven-aged management and long rotations between harvest. If successful, this approach would dramatically improve the ecological quality of our remaining private woodlands and complement the forest reserves on state lands.
We cannot buy it all. Directing growth away from sensitive areas through better municipal and regional planning and changing how we manage what remains must complement our land protection efforts. We will not be able to change our behaviors, and the regulatory environment that supports these changes, unless we first value what we have.