There is a war going on in Massachusetts over the management of the Commonwealth's forests. It is splitting environmentalists and blacking the eyes of more than one state agency. It has attracted the attention of the Boston media in a market where it is often hard to get coverage of anything west of Worcester. At its core, it involves mistrust and miscommunication on a rather grand scale, and flaming emails and blistering opinion pieces are just part of the fallout over what some are calling the folly of felling the Bay State's forests.
The Commonwealth is accused of mismanaging the forest resources under its care, including badly conducted timber harvests, slipshod reasoning for liquidating entire stands and many other administrative and programmatic lapses that have jeopardized its credibility with the public and with outside reviewers. Back in 2004 the Commonwealth received provisional "green" certification from the Forest Stewardship Council for half a million acres - virtually all of publicly held forestland - and following a review last summer it failed to retain this FSC certification.
The FCS 2009 recertification auditing report is fascinating reading (scoll down a bit here for the .pdf). Its findings include a number of major and minor corrective actions that either had not been addressed when previously identified or which had manifested more recently. Among these were a number of auditing standards that clearly require more planning staff and resources than the various state agencies have to work with, which in itself is a deficiency called out in the plan and a chronic underfunding problem of longstanding. As a result, the Commonwealth has withdrawn whole sections of state forests, - including the SE portion of Massachusetts - for which management plans have not been drafted from FSC eligibility.
Other findings point to significant agency lapses and even systemic failures. For me this one was the most damning section of the review:
"Prior to harvesting of conifer plantations (often with complete removal), BoF and DWSP have not completed an adequate environmental assessment to assess impacts of long term ecological functions of the forest. Since their initial certification in 2004, all agencies under this certificate have harvested some plantations of non-native (and in some cases, native white pine) conifer species. BoF has been the most aggressive, with the least developed rationale for converting conifer plantations. DFW's conversion has been very limited and well-justified ecologically. Thus, this...does not apply to DWF. Justifications offered to the audit team differ by agency. For BoF the justification centers of two points: 1) that non-native species are intrinsically in conflict with biodiversity goals, and 2) aggressive regeneration harvesting of non-native stands presents an opportunity to create early successional habitat.
For DWSP the stated reasons for removing conifer plantations include: diversify forests, eliminate non-native species and address failing stands. DWSP also makes the point that diverse native stands offer better resilience to disturbance, thus protecting watershed values.
This rationale does not take into consideration the fact that such plantations offer valuable habitats viz: dense mature coniferous habitat used during migration as as winter habitat for animals. In addition, such habitat require at least 50 years to create, whereas early successional pioneer hardwoods require only a year or two. The precautionary principle would thus suggest that clearcutting such stands would be a last, not first, resort (as mentioned again, below, Norway Spruce is non-invasive). The evaluation team found no evidence that the positive aspects of retaining these plantations on the landscape have been considered, and thus BoF and DWSP have not presented a balanced environmental impact assessment - that addresses the pros and cons of their maintenance - prior to implementing a program for their rapid removal.
Second, forest management agencies are charged under FSC standards to maintain productive forests. Existing plantations offer some of the most productive stands on the entire ownership, as long as they are not in decline owing to forest health issues, such as root rots. We note that the Adams Road (Savoy SF) plantations averaged over 200 square feet of basal area and did not appear to be suffering from forest health issues.
We further note that Norway Spruce, while an exotic species, is demonstrably non-invasive and poses little threat to native plant communities."
The review team went on to call for an immediate halt to all clear cutting by the BoF and DWSP until a thorough environmental review is conducted. Given that the Boston media are still highlighting clear cuts on state land, it is unclear whether the commonwealth heeded this very strong requirement to cease and desist back in August of last year.
What is going on? Is Massachusetts, the bluest of the blue and greener than most, really doing a hatchet job on its natural resources? What, aside from the insular nature of state agencies and general lack of oversight and transparency, is causing these behaviors? Do you know what a well managed forest looks like? Does the Commonwealth? As one with more than a passing familiarity with many of the principal actors in this drama, I will offer a few thoughts on that in a subsequent post.