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Harvard Study Points Way To Conserve Massachusetts Forests

trees in the forest

A newly released Harvard University study details the consequences of land-use decisions in Massachusetts.  It warns that current development patterns, if left unchanged, will have consequences for water quality and climate change.

If recent development trends continue Massachusetts would lose 13 percent of its forest land over the next 50 years which would undermine recent land conservation gains, threaten wildlife habitats, put drinking water supplies at risk and result in harsher consequences of climate change.

But the two-year study conducted by Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution lays out a rosier scenario if the state adopts policies that promote more land conservation, development that is clustered near existing cities and towns and improved timber harvesting methods.

David Foster, Director of Harvard Forest—Harvard University’s 3,500- acre outdoor lab in Petersham—said Massachusetts is at a turning point as the state’s forest cover continues to decline.

"We are losing the very natural infrastructure that supports human life and supports all of nature."

The study was prompted by research that found 60 percent of Massachusetts is now covered by forests compared with 70 percent forest cover in the 1970’s. Much of that loss, about 16,000 acres a year came during the building boom of the 1980s.

" It's not just the amount of forests that's lost, it is where it is lost and the pattern of that. If you disperse development across the landscape it has a very different impact than if you concentrate that,"said Foster.

The Harvard researchers used sophisticated computer models to conduct a detailed acre-by-acre analysis of the entire state using four different scenarios with contrasting patterns of development, conservation, wood harvesting and agriculture to see what Massachusetts could look like in 2060.

The study’s lead author, Jonathan Thompson, a senior ecologist at Harvard Forest said the study is the first of its kind for an entire state. 

" So, it is incredibly detailed. No one has done this before at this level of detail for an entire state."

The study has particular implications for western Massachusetts, which has the majority of the forest-land and the largest intact pieces of wildlife habitat in the state.

Stephanie Cooper, Assistant Secretary with the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, called the study a significant achievement.

" It shows the policies of the Patrick Administration are the right ones in terms of commitment to land conservation, smart growth and sustainable forestry. I think it is a good demonstration for us that those policies need to continue and be redoubled over the long run."

The study is being released at time when Governor Deval Patrick, who has made land conservation a priority, has just one year left in office.  The legislature next year is expected to debate an environmental bond bill that would fund future state land purchases for conservation.  The legislature is also expected to consider a number of changes in zoning laws that could restrict development.

Joanna Ballantine, Regional Director for The Trustees of Reservations—a private conservation group—said she hoped the study would result in informed public policy decisions.

" The depth of the study we hope will be a real springboard for us who are passionate about this to be able to work from data and science from Harvard. This is something we look forward to having as we push this agenda forward."

Harvard researchers have received funding from the National Science Foundation to extend the study to include the five other New England states.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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