From the perspective of many environmental groups, one of the main attractions of Massachusetts seeking FSC green certification for its forest holdings was the opportunity to establish meaningfully large forest reserves on state properties where no commercial extraction would be permitted. The Nature Conservancy, Mass Audubon and other conservation groups recognized an opportunity in this process to help shape the selection criteria and work in partnership with the various state agencies to ensure that some of the largest and most ecologically significant tracts of forest in the Commonwealth remained intact and unfragmented.
In 2006, two years after the Commonwealth received its provisional FSC certification (which has since been rescinded), the core reserve areas were finalized and they included a number of compromises. There were some in the environmental community who advocated for much larger set asides within the State's forests, while even the pragmatists among them were disappointed that the large reserves were scaled back to something on the order of 50,000 acres, or 10% of the Commonwealth's protected forest lands. For them, the ecological trade off had always been to secure a core landscape of intact woodlands (preferably where these had already been identified as priorities by the various environmental groups) and buffer these "wildlands" with woodlands where a variety of compatible uses would take place, including responsibly conducted forestry activity.
Even half a loaf was still a significant gain from these perspectives, but the fate of the remaining, non-core forests on state holdings was still to be determined. FSC provided an external auditor and a framework of management and stewardship standards which, if implemented, would provide a measure of confidence for some environmentalists. These did not allay concerns of others, distrustful of the Commonwealth's intentions (and even competence) and the role of private forestry concerns who were eager to start timber operations outside the core reserves. Sadly, the evidence of state sanctioned timber harvests and its subsequent loss of its FSC certification until major corrective actions take place seems to have reinforced these concerns and heightened the level of government distrust.
There are some in the environmental movement who are fervently against any tree cutting on public land. Others have their own axes to grind regarding the lives they lead as private consulting foresters and a lack of accountability by well compensated public sector bureaucrats. Closer in from the margins, though, are a core of concerned citizens and environmentalists alike who see the Commonwealth stepping back from its commitment to excellent silviculture and landscape scale forest conservation, as well as considerable inefficiencies and disconnects among the various state agencies with forest land holdings and management responsibilities within the umbrella agency that the Patrick Administration has, rather tellingly, renamed the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
I think the Commonwealth's behavior subsequent to the 2004 FSC certification of its woodlands can be broadly explained by
- bureaucratic blind spots (and in some cases, arrogance),
- poor communication both inter-agency and with the public,
- a strong fiscal mandate to hold costs down and perhaps even generate revenue from state holdings,
- chronic underfunding of key staff positions to oversee management planning and implementation,
- misapplication of "science" as the rationale for management, rather than the means for monitoring and evaluating progress toward desired ecological outcomes. and
- new administration priorities that emphasis green energy generation on state lands rather than conservation of ecologically intact landscapes.
The previous post highlighted one of the more egregious decisions by two state agencies to liquidate i.e. clear cut non-native conifer stands for which they were soundly criticized in the FSC auditor's report. These actions get to the root of the problem. Neither the Bureau of Forestry (BoF) nor the Divisin of Water Supply Protection appreciated the sensitivities of the public surrounding highly visible clear cuts. They undermined the very scientific principles they cited to justify removing non-native species that were clearly both non-invasive and had ecological value that they failed to appreciate or even consider.
It is not a question of good plant, bad plant. When the plantations were established, Massachusetts was a heavily deforested landscape and reestablishing woodlands was a priority. Now we have a maturing forest that is predominantly 60-90 years old (with older stands in the higher elevations and in sheltered ravines). We do not have as much early successional habitat as we did when the trees were young, and some species that uses such habitat are in decline as a result. That is hardly a justification for cutting down mature stands at sites selected merely because they contained Norway Spruce or other non-native species. I would also point out that early successional habitats were historically patchy and very limited in size on the precolonial landscape. Some of those declining species that utilized such habitats were never widespread before the land was cleared. Some of us value them today more than the mature spruce forests, but these values are our own and not intrinsic to the species.
I do not feel that the Commonwealth is out to pillage its woodlands purely for profit. I do feel that a woeful record of poor stewardship has been further undermined by the way in which Massachusetts has squandered its FSC certification and undermined the partnerships it had begun to build with the environmental community as well as with legitimate forestry interests. Sadly, Massachusetts is addressing the major corrective actions required for re-certification by downsizing the amount of forestland it wishes to certify.