U.S. Forest Service chief Vicki Christiansen, left, and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides sign a joint stewardship agreement covering more than 360,000 acres in northwest Massachusetts.
Advisory board members pose for the stewardship signing.
BRPC's Tom Matuszko asks advisory board members to raise their hands as FRCOG's Executive Director Linda Dunlavy waits to speak.
CHARLEMONT, Mass. — A shared stewardship agreement signed Thursday will bring U.S. Forest Service expertise to the state while keeping hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland in state and private hands.
The Mohawk Trail Woodland Partnership encompasses 361,941 acres of state and private land across 21 communities in the northwestern corner of the state. About 28 percent of that land is permanently protected. The partnership will enhance conservation and forest research and provide technical support for businesses that depend on the region's natural resources such as tourism and forestry products.
"I am from this region, it is a part of the state that is near and dear to my heart," said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides at the signing held at Berkshire East Mountain Resort. "Something that is a priority to the governor is making sure that this region can continue to have economic security and opportunity for people, but also that connectedness to the landscape and that rootedness in the special places that make up Western Massachusetts."
Theoharides said the state is losing about 65 acres of forestland a day to development — housing, parking lots, and commercial establishments — and it's not coming back.
"Across New England, significant forests are held in private land ownership and it's that patchwork of forest that is critical to our culture, whether its climate change mitigation resiliency and keeping natural resources or to allow wildlife to move all across this landscape down from the National Parks and into the wilderness here in Massachusetts," she said. "So the decision is that each of these landowners are making about their land are so important and having the options to know how to sustainably manage a forest, both for its economic value but also forest conservation values, is so important going into the future."
The woodland partnership has been a discussion for more than a decade, taking shape about six or seven years ago through the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and the Franklin Regional Council of Governments planning process, with support from the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and the Franklin Land Trust. The formal partnership was authorized by law last year.
Massachusetts is the 11th state to sign a shared agreement with the U.S. Forest Service and the first that does not have a National Forest. Vicki Christiansen, chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service, stressed that the Forest Service was partnering by invitation and that the goals and management of the forestland would follow Massachusetts' vision. The legislation creating the partnership prohibits National Forest designation.
"You're doing it your way, what's important for you," she said. "This partnership that put a contemporary view on what a natural resource-based region would look like going forward, what your needs are, what you value out in this region, and how we can leverage together better and different partnerships."
The Forest Service and the state have worked together in the past, Christiansen said, noting that the Green Mountain National Forest to the north shares a continuity across borders. "I commend you for envisioning, and for innovating, what's possible in the future."
The framework was developed over numerous public meetings held over the past six years.
"When this started out, it was really intended to be a land conservation effort," said Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the BRPC. But during the first round of hearings, "we learned two key takeaways from that is that one, that the land conservation wasn't enough. That's one of the components, but there was more than needed. And what was needed was economic development."
The pillars developed by the advisory committee were natural resource-based economic development linked to get technical assistance from the Forest Service and other agencies, along with climate change resiliency, conservation and sustainability, and community sustainability.
"We want this program to be able to adapt to changing times going forward," he said. "We did come up with an initial management plan, but the legislation requires that we periodically review that so that we can change our priorities as necessary to adapt to the changing times."
One of those changes is recognizing the role of forestland in carbon sequestration and the creation of an investment trust fund to continue to support the initiative once the grant funding has run its course. And that the forest should serve as a resource for "the diverse constituents of the area." For example a forestry center would cater not just to tourists, but to services and education, and maybe get help in marketing and development.
"The next phase that was very important was it had to be locally driven, that this was an effort that the communities really needed to be engaged in," Matuszko said. "And that's why we have set up this opt-in process. The communities really had to sign in to want to do this."
Linda Dunlavey, executive director of FRCOG, said this was an opportunity to think about conservation through the lens of climate change and consider how to keep the area's forest strong and resilient into the future.
"The most economically distressed area of Massachusetts, our communities have little economic development opportunity and we really look at this partnership as a way to focus on natural resource based economic development," she said.
There have been concerns expressed that the agreement is too focused on forestry products over conservation. Williamstown officials debated over several meetings before signing on and a small cadre of protesters greeted those attending the ceremony on Thursday.
Advisory board member and Adams Selectman Joseph Nowak, representing the member towns, felt they had earned the trust of the communities as they walked a path together without a roadmap these past years. He thanked those who had made their opinions for and against known during the process, saying diverse perspectives bring together "better ideas and better outcomes."
"I see this region both as being whimsical and magical and synergistic, I'd say an ecological masterpiece," the retired state Department of Conservation and Recreation employee said. "And, well, it's built in a culture of steadfast, how should I put it, New England parochialism, where change comes hard and you have to earn it."
Of the 21 communities within the partnership, 14 have voted to join and another seven will be considering the agreement at their coming town meetings next year. But there also is a broad collaborative between the state, private landowners, conservation organizations, municipalities and economic development entities — and now the U.S. Forest Service.
"We think that we have built a program that will benefit the land, the people living on the land and the communities that those people live in," Matuszko said.
The communities are Adams, Ashfield, Buckland, Charlemont, Cheshire, Clarksburg, Colrain, Conway, Florida, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, Monroe, New Ashford, North Adams, Peru, Rowe, Savoy, Shelburne, Williamstown and Windsor.
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