Associate Supreme Court Justice (and Hotchkiss School graduate) Potter Stewart's quip that "hard-core" pornography is hard to define but "I know it when I see it" could equally apply to many people's view of logging and forestry in the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills. Many residents who would not presume to tell a local dairy farmer that his farming practices are unsustainable and causing environmental degradation feel differently about timber harvests. We quite rightly rally to support the farms which are emblematic of the working landscape of rural New England and yet are increasingly non-viable, but there is little call for - or understanding of - policies that would promote high quality, sustainable silviculture and better forest management.
Forestry in southern New England today is the orphan stepchild of agriculture, and like many orphans suffers from loss self-esteem, low-expectations, neglect and abuse. My friend "The Forestmeister" pointed out an article in Saturday's Berkshire Eagle about public reaction to a proposed forest management operation on state land in Becket, Massachusetts. The story illustrates so many of the values and attitudes that are so often at odds when it comes to forestry decisions in the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills that it prompts closer scrutiny.
The land in question is along Buckley Denton Lake, about 60 highly visible acres within October Mountain State Forest: itself one of the the largest contiguous blocks of forest held and managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. According to the article, the Commonwealth put a cutting plan out to bid for winter harvest that calls for a 30-40% reduction of forest cover - a selective harvest of about 800 "low quality trees"- to improve overall timber quality in the affected stands. Local residents and abuttors have responded angrily to DCR's plans, citing concerns about another timber harvest on nearby state land. "Why did they make such a mess down the road?" one resident asked. "That land looks like it was raped."
Before going into the relative merits of the arguments for and against what DCR has in mind for the forest around Buckley Denton Lake, it is worth pausing to consider the overall state of the forestry profession and of forestry awareness in the communities of southern New England. I am a loss as to how to say this charitably, so at risk of giving unintended offense let me say without reservation that the former is a shambles and the latter is poorly informed and can give rise to mis-guided reactions.
Although the Commonwealth has sought and received provisional Green Certification for all its nearly 500,000 acres of state forest lands, the quality of stewardship and forest management on both private and state properties leaves much to be desired. The discredited and destructive practice of high-grading - removing all the valuable timber and leaving nothing but junk as replacement trees - is still permissible in Massachusetts. Cutting plans can be filed by those who are not licensed foresters, devaluing the forestry profession and resulting in landowner driven, rather than forest-driven decision making. The Society of American Foresters code of ethics does not mandate that member foresters disassociate when a landowner insists on harvesting unsustainably, although The Forest Guild does. Short-rotation harvests and liquidation cuts are common despite state efforts to educate the public. There are also unscrupulous loggers who bilk landowners out of the true value of the timber they harvest.
This sorry state of affairs is allowed to continue because there is little public awareness of the issue and corresponding public outcry for forestry reform. Although Massachusetts has about 68% forest cover, during the last 20 years the Commonwealth has actually lost more forest land to development than it has regenerated. There are twice the number of forest landowners in Massachusetts than just a decade ago, meaning that forest parcels are smaller and forest management - if any - is more likely to be based on the objectives of the property owner rather than the needs of the forest system.
Even in forestry circles, there are profound disagreements about what policy changes are required for meaningful forestry reform. Rather incredibly, some DCR officials remain unconvinced that forest species composition as well as stand structure should be addressed in forest management plans. Nor does DCR believe that it can fully eliminate liquidation cutting and high-grading from all forest cutting plans approved by state foresters on private land. There is contentious debate over whether anyone besides a licensed forestry professional should be able to file a forest cutting plan, giving rise to jeers from some reform-minded foresters that you wouldn't go to an unlicensed surgeon to have your appendix out or hire an unlicensed electrician to wire your house.
Policy is meaningless if it is incompatible with the values and attitudes of the governed. Regulations are just paper if there is no will to enforce them. Forestry reform will not occur without an informed and vocal electorate calling for change and demonstrable leadership by policy-makers and their constituencies on this issue.
Massachusetts is a referendum and initiative state: a more democratic process, perhaps, than others but prone to poorly-informed policy-making directly from the electorate without a clear understanding of its consequences. In 1996 a ballot measure passed in Massachusetts with broad support from the populous, urban eastern region and from several major environmental organizations that banned leg hold traps for fur-bearing animals. The intentions of the measures sponsors were to address concerns over cruelty to animals. It also removed the only practical means of managing the Commonwealth's already robust beaver population, which in consequence tripled in the span of a few short years without meaningful checks on its growth. Trapping all but died out in Massachusetts, and the preferred means of dispatching a live-trapped beaver is still to drown it: hardly a humane measure.
State officials and those with regulatory authority are, as a rule, ill-equipped to address concerns from local residents about the impacts of their decision-making. The Berkshire Eagle reporter could hardly hide her disdain when describing the arrival of DCR Chief Forester Jim DiMaio and his subsequent engagement with the citizens of Becket who opposed the state's plans for Buckley Denton Lake:
"During the meeting, the state's chief forester, James DeMayo, showed up after a drive from Boston and took over a discussion he thought was contentious. After admonishing everyone to behave respectfully, he said that the state has spent "millions" to become certified as practicing forestry under strict standards."
There is a long history of smoldering, nearly secessionist resentment in the Berkshires over the power of Boston, and a not-entirely misplaced mistrust of its intentions. People are quick to assume the worst of state officials and those who were not elected to represent their own interests. Considered on its merits, the Commonwealth's proposed timber stand treatment at Buckley Denton Lake sounds reasonable to one with more than a passing knowledge of forestry, but what residents see and value are trees, whatever their condition, and the illusion of a pristine Lake. These are incompatible values and will conspire to create friction and local resistance unless jointly addressed and considered.
A great deal of Massachusetts forests is without forest management of any kind. Some of these areas are justifiably set aside as ecological reserves - nearly 100,000 acres in this status are proposed on FSC certified state lands. The remainder can and should be considered for other purposes, including high quality silviculture. The Commonwealth wants to increase timber harvests on state lands and many, both in the environmental community and local residents, are concerned such logging be of the highest standard and that the state may not have the desire or capacity to ensure that this is so. Justification for early-successional habitat creation deserves particular attention, as it is unclear that Massachusetts forests should have substantially more young trees and open habitat than they do today to maintain native species diversity, whatever benefits there may be for grouse and grassland birds that were never common here in pre-European settlement times.
At the same time, residents of the Berkshires and Litchfield Hills need a better appreciation of high-quality siliviculture, not only to distinguish good from bad, but to value forest management that will sustain our woodlands as important parts of the regional ecology and rural economy. Most of the region's forest lands are in private ownership and without permanent protection. If they have no value as working forests in a time of elevated land values, they are more likely to convert to development. If they are managed heedless of the ecology of the forest system, they will be ecological sinks and blights on the landscape instead of the dynamic, highly functional woodlands they could be.
Environmentalists need to have a better understanding of forestry, where it is ecologically as well as economically valuable and what reforms are needed to realize its full potential. Government officials need to be better listeners and communicators and approach their mandates with openness and humility if they wish the support for their policies of those who live on the land. Rural residents need to be able to see beyond the short-term aesthetic impacts of a well-managed timber harvest and the permanent scarring and damage caused by a lousy one - and demand the former.