Greenfield Recorder

My Turn: Wildlands must be a greater slice of the pie

Dec. 08, 2021

It was with great excitement that I was invited to speak to the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership Board a couple weeks ago. I hope the presentation sparks greater respectful debate around the importance in achieving balance between wildlands and well-managed woodlands. Both are important.

Wildlands conservation is often misunderstood. It is also underrepresented in conserved lands and underutilized as a conservation strategy. Of the approximately 3.2 million acres of forest that remain in Massachusetts, just about 115,000 acres, or about 2%, are protected as wild. In other words, only about 2% of Massachusetts forests have the kind of protection that affords them the time and space to grow old, wild, and complex.

Why should Bay Staters want more old, wild, and complex forests? Because such forests can simultaneously conserve the full spectrum of biodiversity, store and sequester immense amounts of carbon, provide clean water, and offer quiet solace for those who seek it. Setting aside more land as wild — completely free from resource extraction — also will require us to use the limited resources coming out of managed woodlands in smarter ways, something that my co-presenter, Bob Perschel of New England Forestry Foundation, is leading the way on.

Life as you know it, whether you live in rural western Massachusetts or in a high rise in the heart of Boston, is inextricably linked to a biodiverse world and a stable climate.

When it comes to supporting a diversity of thriving species, maximizing carbon storage and sequestration, and providing clean water, conserving land as wild is indispensable. Older, unmanaged forests contain massive carbon stocks stored in various ways — in soils, leaf litter, wood — that grow and diversify over time. If lost, the carbon is often irrecoverable over the next century — and we simply don’t have that much time.

Old, unmanaged forests’ complex architecture and ample deadwood support higher densities of forest-breeding species. This is especially true for interior forest songbirds, such as snag-dependent creepers and woodpeckers, as well as salamanders, arthropods, and mosses. Additionally, a well-developed canopy and soils rich in organic matter are some of the best ways to maintain excellent water quality. Those forest features are threatened by soil compaction and herbicides often associated with logging.

All of humanity relies on a healthy biosphere. At the same time, the future of warblers, newts and cougars — all of our wild cousins — relies on humanity to acknowledge the intrinsic value of the Earth, beyond its utility as a resource.

We have precious little time to change the trajectory of our modern existence to avoid the worst of climate change and to protect the beautiful biodiverse world that we inherited — the result of hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Conserving forests is a critical strategy to achieve both of those goals. However, when land is conserved, we always have a choice: should it be conserved as wildland or woodland? For too long the emphasis has consistently been on the latter. Woodlands are absolutely essential but we must also collectively strive for more balance within the conservation community and we must set aside more wild forests across Massachusetts and all of New England. Our future depends on it.

By Jon Leibowitz
Jon Leibowitz is the executive director of Northeast Wilderness Trust and lives in Vermont. Northeast Wilderness Trust safeguards over 43,000 acres of forever-wild lands across the Northeast.