On the horns of a dilemma

The Harvard Forest has spoken: the pace of land conservation in New England must triple.

The “Wildlands and Woodlands, Farmlands and Communities” report, released Sept. 19, hits the reader with a startling fact: “Development eliminated 24,000 acres of forest each year from 1990 to 2010.” Currently 9.5 percent, or 3.8 million acres, of the New England land base is taken up with development – buildings, asphalt, golf courses, ski resorts, power utilities – while forest and farmland occupy 88 percent.

The case for just letting the forests be is compelling. For one thing, mature forests help combat climate change by storing carbon dioxide the natural way. The report explains that by themselves, vast tracts of trees currently “remove 760,000 tons of air pollution each year,” offset “more than 20 percent of the region’s carbon dioxide emissions” and help to support our $10 billion annual vacation industry. Undisturbed forest blocks are essential to the movements of deep-woods wildlife as they forage and seek mates.

But does this mean that it’s a crime to cut down any tree? The report is more realistic than that: it clearly recognizes the interdependency of land, water and the built environment. The report calls for the “sound stewardship” of working landscapes while maintaining sustainable ecosystems and resulting in “the wellbeing of local communities” that are land-based. It acknowledges New England’s “distinctive landscape” and varied geography of quiet villages, farming, suburban housing or teeming cities. The forest edges are fully as important as the deep forest to many bird species, small mammals and insects.

It’s a tricky balance, as are most things involving the environment. If something is taken away here, something must be restored somewhere else. When things have been mainly taken away for generations, the task of restoring is that much more onerous. The report finds that after the peak of public concern ten years ago or so, both land conservation and the funding to do so have begun to lapse.

Some Vermont landowners have climbed onto the land trust wagon, continuing to enjoy or work the land while protecting it in perpetuity. Private tree farms, memorial woods, state and federal lands and community forests abound here. But many farmlands and forests remain vulnerable to tempting offers from developers as the older generation passes on and the young ones head to college and white-collar careers. And while a new crop of young farmers is coming up and looking for land, or occupying the family place, they aren’t numerous enough to offset the gradual dwindling of productive forest and farmland under pressure from the second-home industry.

The report says Vermont has been losing about 1,500 acres of forestland per year, although Vermont was the most generous New England state in conservation funding in the decade 2004 and 2014. But New Hampshire beats everyone with the highest percentage of conserved land, at 30 percent, with Vermont coming in only at 23 percent.

It seems Vermont is stuck in a bind. While the state drives forward to meet a goal of 90 percent independence from fossil fuels in 2050 “or else!” we are running headlong into forms of development that threaten the very protections we claim to defend, by commandeering acres of farmland and cutting acres of forest to install solar fields and rows of gigantic whirligigs. The impact of the Clean Water Act on dairy farms with the bad luck to flank streams is certainly causing some of those farmers to consider giving up or pulling out, leaving their lands open to future development … by whom or what?


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