Yesterday, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and The Nature Conservancy held an event at Jug End Reservation in the southern Berkshires to announce the designation of 9 large forest reserves within state agency woodlands where there will not be commercial forestry. Massachusetts sought and received provisional "green certification" from the Forest Stewardship Council for all of its state forest lands in 2004, and the designation of reserves for biological legacies are among its requirements.
According to the brief AP report on the ceremony, "the reserves will allow hiking and non-motorized recreation and focus on removing invasive species and restoring any lost habitats." Other press reports were surprisingly few and far between and thin on details. None of the Berkshire County papers had the story. The Boston Globe ran it buried in today's City and Region section. You can listen to the three minute story on WAMC Northeast Public Radio here.
Something is not right, here. The large reserves were supposed to be the crowning conservation achievement of a coalition of state agencies and major conservation organizations, a key ingredient in an integrated and sustainable approach to forest conservation and forestry on state lands. The Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs website does not even have a press release posted. While The Nature Conservancy's press advisory has more details than any other media source, nowhere on-line or in the print media can one find precisely which areas and acres make up the final slate of large reserves. All the existing data comes from the preliminary recommendations, on which public comment concluded nearly a year ago last October.
One thing that definitely changed since the initial reserve proposals is the addition of a large reserve in Mohawk State Forest in northern Berkshire County. Mohawk is an extraordinary forest and has some of the largest areas of genuine old growth remaining in the state. It absolutely qualified for inclusion as a large reserve, but not all stakeholders agreed on the ideal size and number of acres to be set aside as non-extraction reserves. Harvard Forest in its Wildlands and Woodlands paper recommended 250,000 acres of "wildland reserves", predominantly on state forest lands. Some wood producers wanted no more than 50,000 large and small reserves and were unhappy even with that number. The Commonwealth was firm that it wanted no more than 50,000 large and 50,000 small reserves, or 20% of its forest holdings set aside without commercial timber harvest.
Furthermore, FSC certification does not specify the size of forest reserves, but only mandated their creation. It was The Nature Conservancy that took the lead in making the case for designating reserves in large forested landscapes that were relatively intact and able to support wide-ranging species and those dependent on large areas of unbroken forest cover, such as interior nesting birds. In order to act as course filters for conserving the natural range of forest diversity, these reserves needed to be large; 15,000 acres at minimum with only natural disturbance regimes is considered appropriate in southern New England. There are very few places in Massachusetts with that much contiguous forest land in permanent conservation, without major roads and other fragmenting features. TNC saw the chance to help the Commonwealth establish large reserves that could become the core forests in landscape-scale conservation areas.
There could only be a small number of large reserves - 22 were evaluated in all - so the selection criteria included evaluating potential reserves against others in Massachusetts ecoregions with similar bedrock geology: a key determinant in the kinds of plant communities which can be supported at a given site. Initially, only one large reserve was anticipated in each of these so-called Ecological Land Units. However, when two of the top three sites in the entire Commonwealth - Greylock and Mt Washington - each occurred in the same category, a decision was made to accept them both.
The same issue arose with Mohawk and the Chalet forest to its south. Chalet was ultimately selected over Mohawk - it has a very large Division of Fish and Game holding - but a number of citizens (including myself) and organizations that provided comment on the proposals called for the inclusion of Mohawk forest as a large reserve as well. That is ultimately what happened, yet the number of acres within the 9 large reserves remains at 50,000, meaning there was some paring down of some of the 8 originally proposed large reserves to keep the total acres the same as before. I understand this may have happened at Greylock, the largest reserve overall, and perhaps at some of the others. Since none of the reserves is within even a couple thousand acres of the 15,000 acre recommended minimum to conserve regional forest biodiversity- some are hardly larger than small patch communities of less than 2,000 acres - this cannot be called an ecologically driven position but rather one governed, and not surprisingly, by political considerations.
I believe in the concept of large and small forest reserves and have a personal interest in the conservation of the forests of the Taconic Plateau that include the Mt. Washington forest reserve. I will be quite disturbed to learn that the 8,900 acres originally slated for inclusion in the proposed large reserve on the Plateau have been scaled back further with the addition of Mohawk to keep to the administratively determined maximum acreage for these reserves. Had I known that my advocacy to include Mohawk would diminish the remaining reserves, I would not have called for it, and I suspect others with a greater stake in Massachusetts conservation may feel the same. Then again, it may be easier for some to accept somewhat less than a full loaf to get the deal done.
I am a member of the Forest Guild and support ecologically sustainable, high quality silvaculture where appropriate. There are many forest parcels, some of considerable size, that should be under the management of a licensed Guild forester or one whose approach to forestry puts the health of the forest first. It is clear that the Commonwealth wants to increase the amount of forestry that occurs on state lands outside the reserves. It is also clear that the state has a poor track record of stewardship and the forestry profession as a whole falls far short of the standard the Guild advocates and the forest requires.
The challenge and opportunity now before the Commonwealth is making green certification of state forest lands ecologically meaningful, particularly in the 80% that fall outside the reserves. Unless pressure is brought to bear to demand the highest quality forestry wherever it occurs on the remaining 400,000 acres of state forest land, the war for the forest may be lost even though the reserves are gained. One hopes those conservation organizations that supported and promoted the forest reserves will fight just as hard for the best standards of forestry and hold the Commonwealth accountable. Anything less starts to take on the appearance of back room quid pro quo.