Foresters, conservationists oppose Healey logging moratorium

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 02-04-2023 1:33 PM

While campaigning, one of Gov. Maura Healey’s climate priorities was to place a moratorium on commercial logging on state-owned forest land, a move that foresters and environmental advocates say would be detrimental to forest health, the state’s climate goals and the economy.

Harvesting timber from forests, for both environmental and commercial purposes, is a vital forest management tactic promoting biodiversity, forest regeneration and carbon sequestration, according to local and state experts. Additionally, the state’s tight forest regulations mean any sort of harvesting or forest management practices are heavily scrutinized before work is done on the ground.

“For all of those reasons, we and all these major environmental organizations — a long list of them — have urged the administration to not take that step,” said Chris Egan, the executive director of the Massachusetts Forest Alliance, a Marlborough-based forest advocacy group. “It’s not a free-for-all — these are carefully managed and planned projects based in science. Forest management in Massachusetts is among the most tightly regulated anywhere in the world.”

Details yet to emerge

Details on the Healey administration’s plans, however, are sparse. The only source of information is on Healey’s campaign website, which indicates her intention to implement a moratorium on harvesting. Egan noted Healey only took office as governor this month and some of her commissioner appointments still need to be finalized, which may be slowing down the policy development process.

“Maura will place a temporary moratorium on commercial harvesting on state-owned public forest land,” the website states. “Within her first year as governor, she will develop and implement a science-based state forest management plan that accounts for the impacts of climate change on our forest resources and the role our forests can play in protecting the climate.”

Several attempts to contact the governor’s press office seeking more details about the plan for a moratorium did not receive a response.

The total area of state-owned public forestland, not including land already reserved for conservation, is approximately 507,837 acres, or 17% of all forestland in Massachusetts, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.

Emma Ellsworth, executive director of the Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, said she has heard little information through their networks about the governor’s plan. Mount Grace, based in Athol, owns and stewards approximately 2,000 acres of forest in the region.

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“We’re basing our conversations on hearsay about as much as you are,” Ellsworth said. “I think the moratorium is certainly harmful for our rural economy and not smart for our planet.”

The directors of organizations such as the Massachusetts Audubon Society, The Trustees of Reservations and The Nature Conservancy wrote in a letter to Commonwealth Magazine that a “balanced approach” to forest conservation and management is needed to meet the state’s climate goals.

“We also must manage both public and privately owned forests through a mix of forest reserves and managed forests, including sustainable timber harvesting,” the letter reads.

Some environmental advocates, however, do believe a commercial logging moratorium is an effective method in developing legislation to encourage climate-resilient forests. Last year, more than 700 organizations and residents around Massachusetts, including dozens in western Massachusetts, sent a letter to then-Gov.-elect Healey supporting her plan, which they say could create more oversight of harvesting.

“We discovered that trees are being decimated all over the commonwealth, both in urban and suburban and in forest settings,” said Newton resident Melissa Brown, who co-founded the Trees as a Public Good Network, a group of activists.

Greenfield resident Glen Ayers, a member of the Trees as a Public Good Network Steering Committee that drafted the letter, said trees prevent flooding and protect the watershed.

“There isn’t any real part of Franklin County that needs to be logged now or in the next hundred years if we really want to protect those watersheds,” he said.

Considering individual needs

The issue with Healey’s plan, Egan and Ellsworth said, is it seems to be a blanket moratorium on state-owned forests when, instead, every tract of land should be individually analyzed for its needs.

“What’s called for in one spot is not necessarily what you would do a mile down the road,” Ellsworth said, adding it’s important to “have all the tools in your toolbox” so foresters and conservationists can create site-specific plans. Typical forest management practices include removing dead or dying trees to encourage fast-growing trees or managing the habitat to mimic a different stage of forest succession, according to the Audubon Society.

From the conservation angle, forests are seen as one of the main sources of carbon sequestration, which is the process in which trees capture carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, thus keeping it from entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

Ellsworth added that forest management is also used to aid wildlife by creating or maintaining wildlife corridors for migration.

“A lot of times, we will choose not to cut,” Ellsworth said. “As a forest land owner, a manager will often say, ‘This is not the right time, space or circumstances.’”

Mike Leonard, a forester with Petersham-based North Quabbin Forestry, said harvesting timber is a valuable forest management tactic because dead or dying trees cannot capture as much carbon dioxide.

“Forests are not static — they should really be seen as infrastructure that should be maintained. … We should leave some alone, I agree with that, but the argument is how much?” Leonard said. “My idea is to manage forests over the long term, which sequester more CO2 than unmanaged forests.”

Commercial harvesting

The moratorium would pause commercial harvesting on state-owned forests, which could damage the state’s timber economy, including the sourcing of local materials.

Egan said an example of this is the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR) management of red pines, which started because populations of the trees have been decimated by red pine scale, an invasive species that weakens trees and makes them more susceptible to other ailments.

The DCR, Egan explained, goes into areas, called “plantations,” where red pines were planted — typically because the wood was needed during the Great Depression or to recover forests after a wildfire — and takes down dying trees.

The benefit is these trees, which provide little help to the environment in their dying state, can be used for construction on houses or for telephone poles, while also making room for younger trees that can sequester more carbon.

“To not manage it, you’re just letting them stand and die, it’s going to release carbon,” Ellsworth explained. “We should be trying to source our timber locally, just like we try to source our potatoes locally.”

While a moratorium will not affect Leonard’s personal business, he said the ripple effects could be severe.

“What happens to state land doesn’t affect my business, but it does affect the forest industry,” he said. “We need help in the forestry sector and landowners need help.”

Potential solutions

Egan, Ellsworth and Leonard all agreed a blanket moratorium would not be beneficial to the environment or the state. A parcel-by-parcel management plan, they said, would be more beneficial for all parties involved.

Egan and Ellsworth also said the DCR itself is staffed with foresters and experts in environmental science, meaning the folks who do the groundwork every day may be the most suited to working out forest management and harvesting policies.

“We have wonderful systems with some of the highest standards in the country. I sort of feel like, ‘Let the foresters make the decisions based on what they’re encountering on the ground,’” Ellsworth said. “If you have a moratorium, you’re kind of tying your hands behind your back.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.

An earlier version of this article misstated the position of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy and The Trustees of Reservations. The three organizations have argued that a “balanced approach” to forest conservation and management is needed to meet the state’s climate goals.

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