Thursday, April 12, 2012

Will the Forest Futures Visioning Endgame Help or Hurt the MA Economy and Environment?

Genevieve Fraser
Will the Forest Futures Visioning Endgame Help or Hurt the MA Economy and Environment?
By Genevieve Fraser

Just as environmental attitudes that had been pervasive for decades on the west coast were starting to wane due to massive forest fires, they took hold with a vengeance in Massachusetts in 2009 following what some regard as the chain-saw massacre at Savoy Mountain State Forest.  At issue was a clear-cut of a non-native Norway Spruce plantation that put then Department of Conservation and Recreation Commissioner Richard Sullivan on the hot-seat for what some perceived to be lax department oversight.  
Regenerating young forest of native species in Savoy State Forest
where a non-native plantation of Norway Spruce once stood.
The purpose of the harvest was to create an early successional regenerating forest that would allow for reestablishment of native biodiversity, rather than an overly mature monoculture that is more prone to disease and forest fires.  And as with any other harvesting operation put out to bid, the state received a payment that helped offset their cost of operation. (See a typical DCR review narrative for a harvest at )
Though there was nothing technically wrong with the forest management plan at Savoy Mountain State Forest, Sullivan admitted to some errors in its execution. Meanwhile the Administration, fearing the political ramifications of Savoy and other forestry-environmental skirmishes, went into a political lock-down.   On behalf of Governor Deval Patrick, then Energy and Environmental Secretary Ian Bowles initiated a full-blown response - the Forest Futures Visioning Process that put forest management on DCR lands on hold over the next three years, including a moratorium in 2010 on commercial logging at the Quabbin Watershed.  This action, initiated by Bowles while Sullivan was DCR Commissioner, was continued by Sullivan as Environmental and Energy Secretary, and by his successor at DCR Edward Lambert. While it was meant to allay concerns of anti-forestry activists, the end result was to wreck havoc on the wood products industry.  

Since 1633, the wood products industry has been a valued participant in the economy of rural communities in Massachusetts, and for the most part thrived. But in recent years, both the primary harvest and mill operators and secondary manufacturers had been increasingly stressed due to competition from government subsidized Canadian mills, furniture manufacturers going south and then off-shore, and the housing bubble that burst along with the nation’s economy in 2008.  These factors, coupled with the media spotlight on anti-harvesting which intimidated many private forest landowners from stewardship activities, increased the industry’s dependence on the competitive bid process for timber harvests on state land, which was a stated purpose behind the acquisition of these lands as defined by state law.  

However, competitively bid timber harvests not only benefit the industry, they also generate a revenue stream to the Commonwealth and vitally needed in-lieu of tax income for host communities.  Harvesting operations are also supervised by state foresters to secure compliance with regulations that protect natural as well as cultural resources.  And because these state run timber sales were now vital for the survival of the industry, many havesters had purchased expensive equipment less damaging to forest lands to insure compliance with state mandates.  But with a moratorium on cutting at the Quabbin, and a hold placed on management on other DCR lands, many in the wood products industry were invested in equipment they could no longer afford.  Workers were laid off, and companies that had lasted for generations - and in some instances for centuries - were in danger of folding.

Meanwhile, the Forest Futures Visioning Process had its own legal mandates and had put in motion an assemblage of stake holders - including overtly anti-forest management activists – with activities such as a Technical Steering Committee, plus public involvement through visioning workshops and written comments. This publicly funded planning session was a process used by many large institutions and corporations to create vision, mission and goal statements while continuing management activities.  But in this instance, for three years, in addition to taking away opportunities to earn their livelihood, DCR no longer carried out support services required under law for the industry such as issuing harvest licenses and professional training.  In sort, the industry was put on hold.

Savoy Mountain State Forest along Route 2 
The Forest Futures Visioning Process incorporated the philosophy behind the Harvard Forest based “Wildlands and Woodlands” vision in which managed Woodlands and Wildland reserves together form continuous expanses of forest that provide a full range of ecological, economic, and social benefits - with the ultimate goal of keeping forests as forests and away from development.  In that vision, managed Woodlands would comprise about 90% of regional forest cover.  But the newly minted DCR plan allows for only 40% of these forest lands to be commercially managed. And as some would argue, in truth between 20 and 25% of the designated woodlands is off limits when you factor in wetlands and areas too steep to log. 

According to the final landscape designations, sixty percent – the Parklands and Forest Reserves – are to remain free from commercial logging with the Forest Reserves not to be managed at all, except in cases needed for rare wildlife habitat and emergency situations.  In essence, the competitive bid process, or what some refer to as commercial harvesting, had been used politically as a scapegoat - called to task as the culprit behind what some perceive to be the destructive management of the state’s forest.  Any management occurring on the remainder of DCR forest lands – the 60% - would be fully paid for by taxpayers, instead of having the cost partially off-set by sales to the industry.
Rose Breasted Grosbeak associated
with open woodlands
But who was to blame for the Savoy Mountain State Forest uproar - commercial logging - or a misperception that there was damage from the clear-cut?  Should commercial logging be avoided on the majority of public lands – or is the Forest Vision myopic, much too narrow in its short and long-range perspective?

Ironically, the public outcry over forest cutting practices occurred at a time when the moose population was starting to make a come-back in the state due to forest management at the Quabbin and in other locations.  According to a scientific study based at the Quabbin, moose are dependent on a mosaic of forest types – dense forests are needed for cover and shelter, wetlands for coolant and forage, and managed regenerating young forests for their basic food supply.  And MA Audubon has released a study “State of the Birds, Documenting Changes in Massachusetts’ Bird Life” that warns 39% of our breeding birds have decreasing populations. “This finding, coupled with species-specific knowledge of shrublands birds in trouble, such as Golden-winged Warbler, and White-throated Sparrow, makes a strong case for the need for management or conservation action in particular habitats for particular groups of birds,” the report states.  The problem is due, in part, to an insufficient amount of open agricultural and forested lands that was common in the 19th and the first part of the 20th century.  Simply put, forest management is integral to maintaining a diverse habitat for wildlife as well as basic forest health.

In Brimfield, the forested hillside has been ripped apart
while the tree farm remains intact below
Then in 2011 disaster struck - a triple whammy of tornadoes, Tropical Storm Irene, and the Halloween-eve snowstorm - that caused significant damage to trees and forests.  But rather than allow the wood products industry to do what it does best - manage forests, including clean-ups - still sensitive to the anti-forest management sentiments and bound by legal dictates of the Forest Futures Visioning Process which was not yet complete, the Administration largely froze the industry out of the disaster cleanup.   One of the sticking points was that Brimfield State Forest - a scene of much of the disaster - had been designated as a Reserve under the new system.

In a letter to Energy and Environmental Secretary Sullivan, Jeff Poirier, the president of the Massachusetts Wood Producers Association noted that these weather events “impacted thousands of acres of state-owned forestlands, and the Commonwealth has not responded to the forest stewardship responsibility to salvage forest products or conduct meaningful forest restoration. Beside the opportunity to remove forest products for public use as a result of the catastrophic storms, accumulated dead and damaged trees provide fuel that increases wild fire risk.” 
The acrid stench of smoke from the April 4th 50-acre forest fire in Brimfield is still strong a week later...
Photo taken 4/11/2012
“Meanwhile, aesthetics have deteriorated, ecosystem services have been diminished, and benefits to local economies - harvesting operations that would have created local rural jobs, associated local services and revenue to the towns from the Forest Products Trust Funds - have not been realized. In short, thousands of acres of off-road, interior damage remain at a time when the impacted cites and towns are most in need of the added revenue salvage operations would bring as well as the clean up essential for tourist recreational activities.”

Despite a frantic appeal by DCR’s David Celino, the state fire warden, warning of the exceptionally dry winter and unusually warm weather which could combust the downed trees on state lands and throughout the state, the official response was to wait.  “Once the Landscape Designation process is complete, EEA and DCR are committed to resuming sustainable forest management within those areas designated as woodlands, under new management guidelines,” Sullivan responded to the Massachusetts Wood Producers Association.   And because Brimfield State Forest was not designated as a woodlands, it would be excluded. 

But the delay was costly and predictable.  By mid-March dozens of forest and brush fires had been reported.  On April 4, over 50 acres of downed trees from the tornado burst into flames adjacent to the Brimfield State Forest which had also been laid waste.  A few days later, as fires continued to devour forested areas on the North Shore, South Shore and parts of Central Massachusetts, the Department of Conservation and Recreation informed the media that crews were clearing debris in Brimfield State Forest left from last summer’s tornadoes.  "Crews plan to widen some existing forest paths by about 90 feet to create fire breaks," according to reports.   But except for some fire breaks and fire roads, most of the 800 acres would be left as is – still susceptible to fire.

In Monson, evidence of the tornado remains while families continue to rebuild.
It is unfortunate, that due to the newly minted dictates of the Forest Futures Visioning Plan the state failed to call on their natural ally - the wood products industry - to help deal with the disaster, but perhaps more unfortunate is the money wasted fighting fires that might have been prevented.  The wood products industry is a valuable asset to the Commonwealth.  For the most part, they know their trade, are good at it and have contributed millions of dollars to the state’s coffers while providing jobs as well as forest management activities that reduce the risk of fire, enhance wildlife habitat and the overall health of the forest. 

The Western Institute for Study of the Environment issued a report in 2009 – about the same time the Administration was in overdrive seeking a political solution to the public outcry over the clear-cut at Savoy Mountain State Forest.  The WISE report utilized a forest carbon and emissions model to study the impacts of California wildfires on climate and forests.  The study reviewed seven years of wildfires.  The results were sobering.  “The wildfires that scorched California from 2001 to 2007 seriously degraded the state’s forests and contributed to global warming. Political and economic obstacles to managing forests and restoring burned forests are the root causes of the wildfire crisis,” according to the report.

As a political aside, I would add that allowing the free enterprise system to work instead of using a dwindling supply of taxpayers’ dollars to manage a crisis after the horse has left the barn is neither wise economic or environmental policy.

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