Protecting Wildlands and Woodlands

Apr. 24, 2018
A river runs through New England

Darkness pooled under the trees and began to spread. My friend Leslie and I sat on the soft white pine needles by the side of the trail and waited, shivering a bit, and moving closer to each other for warmth. An owl began to call in the distance. Around us were thousands of acres of woods, and for two kids from the suburbs and the city, they seemed vast, mysterious, and more than a bit threatening. We’d stopped to look at something, and meanwhile, our freshman seminar tour of the Harvard Forest had moved on. We had no idea where we were or how we might find the warmth and light of the Forest’s central building—the Fisher Museum.

It was my first exposure to the Harvard Forest, a branch of Harvard University and a longtime partner of the New England Forestry Foundation. Harvard Forest has inspired generations of forest ecologists from its remote Petersham, Mass., location. It remains a center of thought and research on New England’s dominant land use—the 80 percent of the region covered in forests—and in late 2017, Harvard Forest joined with NEFF and the Highstead Foundation to issue the latest contribution to their influential Wildlands and Woodlands Vision.

A Vision for New England’s Forests

Over the last 13 years, Harvard Forest director David Foster and a cadre of colleagues have achieved a remarkable accomplishment—the Wildlands and Woodlands Vision, the only regional examination of the values, management, and threats to forestland in the United States. The Wildlands and Woodlands Vision was launched in 2005 with a Massachusetts focus, and expanded in 2010 with a report that called for a New England-wide effort to conserve 70 percent of the region’s land as forests, with the bulk of that as working forests and 10 percent as ecological reserves.

By keeping 70 percent of New England forested, the report contends, the region will retain clean air and water; protect critical wildlife habitat; retain the ability to sustainably supply much of its wood needs for construction, energy, and wood products; and continue to store substantial amounts of carbon that would otherwise contribute to damaging global climate change.

The New England Forestry Foundation’s board formally endorsed the vision in 2012, and in the fall of 2017 NEFF joined with Harvard Forest and Highstead Foundation to publish the latest analyses, summarized in a new document: Wildlands and Woodlands, Farmlands and Communities.

The new report expands beyond simply articulating a vision for the forest, and begins to address the underlying conditions that enable conservation. And it has inspired a wave of new coordination and efforts among conservation groups—addressing forest policy, academic research needs, funding for conservation, coordination among conservation groups, and the need for integrated land use planning to meet the region’s interlocking needs for forests, farms, and places for people to live and work.

Report Findings

NEFF is justifiably proud of the role played by our groundbreaking Pingree Forest Partnership in ushering in the era of large land conservation deals at the start of the 21st century. The Pingree Partnership demonstrated land conservation at a scale never before seen and helped trigger a wave of deals by NEFF and conservation partners that protected nearly 3 million acres of New England in a decade, with NEFF alone protecting more than 1 million of those acres. Wildlands and Woodlands, Farmlands and Communities examines the enabling conditions that allowed that work to succeed, particularly the availability of nearly $1 billion of public funding, with about two-thirds of that coming from state governments.

The report also documents that such public funding has declined substantially from its 2008 peak. In some areas it is essentially unavailable today. For example, there are little federal forest legacy funds available in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, and to make matters worse, state acquisition funds have also dried up in Maine. This puts the future of land conservation at risk, particularly in Maine and New Hampshire where federal funds provided more than half of all public funding for land conservation.

Private funding for land conservation in New England also declined during the 2008 recession, but has since returned to its pre-recession levels. Often private funding for land protection is inspired by the availability of public funding that leverages the private dollars raised and gives donors confidence that their investment is serving a strong public purpose. Absent a return of federal funding and reinvigoration of state acquisition funds, the progress of conservation is at risk.

Meanwhile, the loss of natural places to development is accelerating. Wildlands and Woodlands, Farmland and Communities further documents a trend first noted in the 2010 report—all six New England states are losing forestland to development.

A detailed analysis supporting the latest document shows that the highest rates of loss between 1986 and 2010 were in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Maine. Across the region, nearly 1 million acres of woodlands were lost to development—primarily to suburbs and even lower density residential development scattered through rural areas such as coastal Maine or western Massachusetts. An additional 550,000 acres of forest were degraded by development but remained forested. This means that every year we lose approximately 24,000 acres of forestland to development, an area one and a half times as large as the town of Concord, where Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden, his famous essay on nature. The Wildlands and Woodlands report makes it clear: time is running out to save New England’s forests.

This loss of land also diminishes New England forests’ ability to serve as a bulwark against climate change. Prior to 1980, New England forests removed 2 teragrams of carbon per year from the atmosphere—about 4.4 billion pounds or the same weight as half a million trees or elephants. Some was sequestered in the trees of new forests growing on old agricultural lands, and some in existing forests. Today, regrowth on agricultural lands is negligible, and the conversion of forests into developed land both releases some of the forests’ stored carbon to the atmosphere, and means fewer acres of existing forests remain to sequester carbon. The result is the net amount of carbon pollution removed by the region’s forests is only about a tenth of the 1980 rate, meaning that more carbon emitted by cars, power plants and factories stays in the atmosphere.

The 2010 Wildlands and Woodlands Vision resulted in the creation of Regional Conservation Partnerships (RCPs) that bring together land trusts in a region to help conserve forests. The RCP network has grown exponentially and has begun to bear fruit. Some RCPs have received federal and private funding to help cover the costs of land conservation—such as staff time, appraisals, surveys and the like—or to compensate landowners for a conservation purchase of their land or an easement over the land. Others have fostered mergers among land trusts or collaborative projects that foster more efficient application of conservation funding and effort.

Wildlands and Woodlands also provides an umbrella for the new group Academics for Land Protection in New England (ALPINE) that seeks to promote scholarship that advances land conservation. And Wildlands and Woodlands together with the Highstead Foundation hosts a regional conservation finance roundtable and a forest policy working group to coordinate efforts and share ideas. NEFF executive director Bob Perschel serves on the working group, and innovative NEFF finance initiatives like the Pooled Timber Income Fund are examples of the programs the finance roundtable is seeking to advance—approaches that conserve as much forest as possible with private philanthropic contributions.

In short, the Wildlands and Woodlands Vision is moving from analysis to action, seeking to conserve not just forests, but their role in New England’s landscape.

As for Leslie and me, we did not have to spend the night out under our pine tree. Before long our seminar leader Ernie Gould, who became my undergraduate mentor, noticed we were missing and came back to find us. We were back at the museum in time for dinner.

Writing by NEFF Deputy Director Frank Lowenstein.