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New England forests: big, but in danger

With 33 million acres of forests and wetlands between Long Island Sound and the Canadian border, New England has no shortage of natural lands.

But the 75 to 80 percent of New England land that remains undeveloped is threatened, or so say the 20 authors of the report "Wildlands and Woodlands: A Vision for the New England Landscape," which was released last week.

The report was produced by Harvard University's Harvard Forest, with 20 authors from all six New England states who are experts in forest science, environmental policy and finance.

The report advocates a focused, long-term, multi-state effort to ensure that at least 70 percent of the entire region remains in forest, and that all 7 percent of the total landscape now in farms be preserved, or even increased to 10 or 15 percent. Private owners now hold the vast majority of forest and farmland, leaving it vulnerable to future development unless action is taken.

"The challenge confronting us is that we are not protecting our forests from deforestation," David Foster, lead author and director of the Harvard Forest, said during a conference call with reporters. "What we're trying to do is project where our landscape is going and what is possible."

After reforestation over the last two centuries, New England is now the nation's most heavily treed region and, paradoxically, also includes some of its most densely developed areas, Foster said.

But over the last 50 years and especially the last two decades, every New England state has seen its forest acreage begin to slip, as property is developed or changes hands and tracts of 25 acres or more - the minimum size for a parcel to be considered a forest - are divided up among multiple heirs or buyers.

Bill Toomey, director of Highstead, a regional conservation organization based in Redding and one of the partners in the Wildlands and Woodlands project, said Connecticut is now about 59 percent forest, down from 70 percent two decades ago. Only about 12 percent of the state's forests are permanently protected, he said.

"This is a wake-up call to the New England region," he said of the report. "We do have a second chance here."

The report advocates partnerships of land trusts, towns and other groups working together to offer landowners conservation easements so that their land will be protected for future generations. There is broad support among the many small landowners to have their land preserved, according to Toomey and others, but most are not wealthy and need some compensation.

"There is a lot of enthusiasm among owners to conserve their land, and there are 123 land trusts in the state, so there is plenty of capacity," Toomey said. "The bottleneck is the funding."

The areas of Connecticut that show the most promise for the large-scale land preservation and the kinds of partnerships envisioned by the report, he said, are the state's northwest, northeast and southeastern corners. These areas have remaining tracts large enough to create preserved corridors of meaningful habitat, and existing networks of land trusts, nonprofit groups and towns active in conservation programs, he said.

In southeastern Connecticut, the Borderlands project is working across 20 towns along both sides of Connecticut's border with Rhode Island. In the southern towns in the Borderlands, he said, 40 percent of the land is preserved, including the most recent addition of 800 acres in Preston and North Stonington in 2009, said Kevin Essington, director of government relations for the Nature Conservancy of Rhode Island, the organization overseeing the project.

The project has been promoted to the towns and residents as a means not only of protecting forests, but also of preserving their rural character.

The report said that by working to increase the amount of permanently protected land to 30 million acres, the New England region will preserve its identity, help ensure clean water and air as forests help filter out pollutants more cheaply than processes that rely on technology, benefit wildlife and provide recreation and tourism opportunities.

Additionally, forests help prevent soil erosion, provide buffers against flooding after heavy rains and keep out the kind of sprawl developments that end up costing towns more in services than they supply in taxes, noted Robert Lillieholm, forest policy professor at the University of Maine. Forests can also store large amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide to keep it out of earth's atmosphere, where it contributes to global warming.

The 30 million acres, or 70 percent of the landscape maintained as forest should be maintained mostly as managed woodlands, the report states, allowing owners to sustainably harvest wood and other resources, while about 10 percent should be kept in its wild state.

"Woodlands and wildlands are mutually supporting and complementary options that can best support nature and humans," Foster said.

Saving the forests:

Suggested ways to foster permanent forest protection in New England:

• Renewal of federal tax deductions for conservation easements. This is currently being considered by Congress.

• Collaborations of groups "willing to take new risks" for forest conservation.

• Increased public funding for conservation.

• Incentives such as fast-track permitting for high-density developments that have low environmental impact.

• Creation of new markets that give economic value to forest products and services, such as carbon sequestration, protection of water quality, sustainably harvested wood and local biofuels.



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