Forests as Essential Infrastructure

by Stephanie Jo Kent

Think about where you live. Is it a city? A rural town?

What’s the closest forest to you? Have you ever been in a forest?

Many Americans have not. I happen to live in a town where 77% of the landscape is “open space,” meaning that the land is covered mostly in trees with some farmland (Footnote 1). It’s quite amazing, actually. In a city, a tree here and a tree there is wonderful because trees bring ease to the eyes and a breath of fresh air—literally! But what a forest does is so much more.

Much of the most dense forest in the United States is in New England.

The challenge is that in New England, where we have such significant forest, it is easy to take trees for granted. Not only has logging occurred for generations, but vast swaths of forest that were cleared in Massachusetts during the first 4oo years of colonialism grew back over the last century and a half (a rarity in the industrial age). Based on this evidence, the resilience of forest to bounce back is robust.

The question for policymakers today is how reliable is this demonstrated capacity of trees to grow into forests?  Secondly, are there necessary conditions? My town is engaging this question with regard to how many trees can be cleared for development projects. Frankly, we are having a difficult time disengaging from the assumptions of the past.

Spans of accountability

Elected officials (and appointed ones, volunteers who assist local government, and residents who participate in civic life) have two kinds of accountability: one is to the present and one is to the future. Accountability in the present involves space—normally this space is defined by town boundaries. Accountability to the future involves time—what will be the impact of policy on the quality of life not only for the foreseeable next few years but for the next several decades?

A challenge of policy-making involves what happens when the norms of managing space come into conflict with the norms of managing time?

Take, for example, my town. We’ve been in a special permit process for a desirable solar project that has been sited undesirably (where acres of trees must be cleared and the slope is too steep for mitigation measures to prevent irreparable damage to a coldwater fisheries resource, threats to drinking water for four towns, and stormwater runoff protection). But the demand for solar in this space is now. This project is felt by some in the town as a way to generate some (minimal but reliable) income in this town, very soon.

Our town is in a middle-to-high zone of risk for future development (lower graph); we are converting forest to development faster than we are protecting and adding forestlands (upper graph).

The perceived immediacy of this financial need is driving the debate about whether to grant a special permit despite the project’s known and obvious detrimental impacts on the environment. This is the heart of the conflict between spatial and temporal accountability. It is easiest to keep making decisions based on the economic model of the past 35 years, since President Reagan adopted a version of capitalism called supply-side economics. The idea that lower taxes drives economic growth is not realistic in my town, which is in a process of raising taxes in order to pay for basic town services that residents value. The rural character of our town means most residents are employed somewhere else; basically, we’re a bedroom community. Lower taxes may attract industry that devastates the landscape, but this would be self-defeating. Yet we are not without leverage and economic potential!

Here’s the crux: 35 years is half a human lifetime. Prior to Reaganomics was a different economic model. And prior to that there was another one. Going back further, there were different systems than capitalism altogether. While the cumulative threat of climate change can be pinpointed on the fossil fuel industry, the deregulation aspect of supply-side economics has equal blame. The very notion of “supply” presumes adequate amounts of resource. The tension in these tumultuous times is which resources, and what spans of accountability?

Generation X and Millennials are the ones who need to make the creative and courageous decisions to change the economics by establishing policies that assist the transition of our energy economy without compromising the integrity of the natural infrastructure of the planet.

So let’s go back to the forest. Why start with saving trees? For our town, protecting our forest is the most pragmatic choice. Forest is the most defining characteristic of our rural community. Other towns will have other factors leading them to make their start with some other policy, but for us, saving trees in order to protect the forest is how we can leverage the space we live in to make the largest and most significant contribution over time to a new economy that provides adequate energy, food, water and atmosphere for more than the remainder of our lives.

Thinking in Terms of Scale

In order to generate a feasible policy that can win sufficient agreement from town residents, let’s tack back-and-forth between the small and the large in terms of space, and the near soon and forty years from now in terms of time.

The basic unit of space is the town boundary, with its unique size and shape. Belchertown Massachusetts has a footprint. This footprint is not exclusive or self-contained; by definition it leaves a mark on the ecology of the place, and has effects on the larger ecosystem of which it is a part. This is true in terms of the natural world as well as the manmade world of state and national law. As a sub-unit of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, whatever town bylaws are created must not be in violation of state law or of applicable federal law. This creates certain limits but, any artist will tell you, the limits are what set the conditions for creative expression. The zone of legal interpretation is where both entrepreneurship and social change happen: these are not mutually exclusive but deeply complementary.

We’re right on the verge of dropping from “Forest Dominated” to mixed “Forests and Farms.” This gives us a crucial position in the big picture: what we do in our town will have a downside, or an upside if we choose, on everyone.

In terms of time, a collaboration of businesspeople, government officials, citizens, and scientists from the forestry program at Harvard University have chosen 2060 as a temporal limit to guide policy for development and land management in New England. This is not an arbitrary year someone pulled out of a hat; it is a considered estimate of how much time is required for a complete transition from the current economy to a new one. It is also a generous estimate of how much time humanity has to guarantee our survival on a planet whose atmosphere is weakening because of the current economic system. The reality is that the sooner we start taking incremental steps toward sustainability the better.

Source: Sterling’s Best Places to Live

Thinking in terms of scale, then, the elegance of what Harvard Forest has done is to make a direct link between the rural character of New England’s (relatively small-scale) towns and the big picture. In the most plain terms, their entire team of collaborators are pointing the way to an improved quality-of-life under a modified economic system that simultaneously protects the planet. The challenge to rural town policymakers (as well as state lawmakers) is to forge the bylaws (and state statutes) that will start us all on this journey of transformation.

Belchertown has a chance to be a leader of this historic transition.

Recreating Home

The expressed desires of the residents and citizens of Belchertown MA, presumably similar to the desires of most people who live in rural towns replete with scenic beauty, clean water, abundant forest and attendant wildlife, is to retain this rural character. This place is our home; ties to this place range from relatively recent for those who have moved here in their lifetime, and go back generations for others who grew up here and have chosen to stay. Some families may have lineage all the way back to King Philip’s War. Astonishingly, there are even people living in the area today whose ties to this land and ancestry go even further back to the habitation of the Quabog Nipmuc pre-invasion.

The trick, perhaps it would serve us to recognize it as an art, is to weave sets of policy that connect with and strengthen all the trends in today’s society to recalibrate the economy. The Harvard Forest publication, Wildlands and Woodlands, does a nice job of identifying national trends, including local sustainable agriculture, sustainable forestry for a variety of wood products, and rural tourism. They’ve also posed the notion of compensation for ecosystem services, which would include the provision of clean water to regional towns and cities, and the dual functions of carbon sequestration and air filtration provided by large intact and mature forests.

Look back at the first picture–the Eastern Woodlands are North America’s equivalent of the Amazon Rainforest. This used to be one, uninterrupted contiguous forest spanning all of New England, connecting northward into Canada, extending all the way across the south to the Gulf of Mexico, and reaching toward the midwest. Now it is pockmarked by development, interrupted by cities and towns and factories and highways and military bases and airports . . . all the built evidence of American democracy. For all its enduring capacity to keep cleaning the air, filtering the water and provide habitat for thousands of species, this immense forest continues to be chipped away by small, medium and large development projects throughout its vast expanse. The miraculous reforestation in Massachusetts ended in 2010. After gaining back much of its former robustness and vitality the relatively unfettered urges of development turned the tide and now, once again, the New England forest is starting to shrink.

What can one little town do?

Protection is on the rise but we need to increase, overall, by about 3 times.

Belchertown is in the enviable position of being, practically, at the exact target percentage of forested land to developed land recommended by Harvard Forest. We might also be at the target for agricultural land: at any rate we are darn close. Relative to other towns in New England and throughout the Eastern Woodlands, we have very little to do to maintain and ensure that these percentages persist. Belchertown could establish bylaws that require maintaining this balance of forest, agriculture and development as a means to ensure the continuation of its rural character and to guarantee a level of ecosystem service to the entire country.

We could be part of the invention of new standards for clustered development schemes like open space residential developments that compensate private landowners for the ecosystem contribution of maintaining forested land rather than giving it over to new development, whether it be housing, renewable energy such as solar, or some other form of industry. We can figure out how to build up sustainable forestry practices that increase yield while diversifying the forest and letting it mature (enhancing its function as ecosystem infrastructure), and promote local agriculture and its attendant network of interrelated businesses so that the ultimate outcome is the preservation of rural neighborhoods and the ecosystem services rural landscapes provide.

Here’s the rub. If Belchertown fails to maintain our percentage of forested and active agricultural land, who is going to make up our shortfall?  If we, who are so close to the desired targets, cannot manage to find ways to be accountable both in space and in time, who do we think is going to do that on our behalf? We are not in a position, spatially or temporally, to be able to ignore the imperative of coming up with revisions and modifications to business-as-usual.

The demand of change may be uncomfortable, perhaps, but it is also exciting. Having observed the Planning Board and Conservation Committee work for months, now, on behalf of the best interests of the Town, I believe in their capacity to lead by denying the Blue Wave/Cowls permit, and to generate and convince the Town to adopt new solar bylaws that set the trend for a resilient economic model in Belchertown that can be a model for other towns in America’s most precious forest.

Notes and References
Footnote 1: Belchertown Open Space and Recreation Plan 2013-2020. (2014, p. 33).

First Figure: New England Forests: A Globally Important Resource. Data from: Hansen, M. C., R. S. DeFries, J. R. G. Townshend, M. Carroll, C. Dimiceli, and R. A. Sohlberg. 2003. Global percent tree cover at a spatial resolution of 500 meters: First results of the MODIS vegetation continuous fields algorithm. Earth Interactions 7:1–15.

Second Figure: Forest Loss to Development. Data from:Thompson, J. R., J. S. Plisinski, P. Olofsson, C. Holden, and M. Duveneck. In Review. Forest loss in New England: A projection of recent trends; Olofsson, P., C. E. Holden, E. L. Bullock, and C. E. Woodcock. 2016. Time series analysis of satellite data reveals continuous deforestation of New England since the 1980s. Environmental Research Letters 11(6):1–8; and Homer, C. G., J. A. Dewitz, L. Yang, S. Jin, P. Danielson, G. Xian, J. Coulston, N. D. Herold, J. D. Wickham, and K. Megown. 2015. Completion of the 2011 National Land Cover Database for the conterminous United States— representing a decade of land cover change information. Photogrammetric Engineering and Remote Sensing 81(5):345–354.

Third Figure: Wildlands & Woodlands Vision for New England in 2060

Fourth Figure: W&W Goals and Land Protection in Northern New England since 1950. Adapted from Meyer, S. R., C. S. Cronan, R. J. Lillieholm, M. L. Johnson, and D. R. Foster. 2014. Land conservation in northern New England: Historic trends and alternative conservation futures. Biological Conservation 174: 152–160.

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