Protecting 70 percent of the region’s forests will require doubling the current pace of conservation activity, said Harvard Forest director David Foster.

File Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Science & Tech

Rolling back the forest canopy

4 min read

After expanding for 150 years, New England woods are declining

Forests are declining in all six New England states for the first time in 150 years, threatened by urban sprawl in the south and by recreational development and forest ownership fragmentation in the north, according to a new report released by researchers at the Harvard Forest.

The report, “Wildlands & Woodlands: A Vision for the New England Landscape,” was authored by 20 researchers at a dozen institutions. Released Wednesday (May 19), the report calls for renewed conservation efforts with the goal of protecting 70 percent of the region’s forests from development over the next 50 years, mainly through voluntary conservation easements given by private landowners.

The report’s authors, including eight from Harvard, said New England’s forests began to rebound from their original clear-cutting in the mid-1800s, as agricultural production moved west and the region industrialized. After a century and a half of expansion, the forests today represent an amazing success story, covering 80 percent of the region’s landscape.

Though today’s forests are predominantly second growth and different in character from the region’s original forests, researchers said area residents have a second chance to decide their forests’ fate. The first Colonial-era settlers decided to cut them down, but now that the forests have re-grown, it’s our turn to make a similar choice.

The report’s findings and recommendations were presented at a press conference by David Foster, Harvard Forest director; Robert Lilieholm, associate professor of forest policy at the University of Maine; and James Levitt, director of the Harvard Forest’s Program on Conservation Innovation.

Protecting 70 percent of the region’s forests will require doubling the current pace of conservation activity, Foster said. The report envisions two main types of conservation status. Most of the land — 90 percent, or 27 million acres — would be in what the report terms woodlands, which would maintain forest but allow timber harvesting, recreation, and other uses. The other 10 percent, totaling 3 million acres, or 7 percent of New England’s landscape, would be preserved as wildlands, free from human disturbance and management, and allowed to develop naturally.

Roughly twice the property under development would be open to future development, Foster said. Though that’s a smaller percentage than the land that would be conserved as forest, there would be plenty left for development, especially since old mill towns and declining urban neighborhoods can be rebuilt as well.

Forest threats today — houses and shopping malls — tend to be more permanent than past threats — pastures and fields, according to Lilieholm. In Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, forest threats mainly stem from urban sprawl, meaning residential development and building on the coastlines.

In the northern states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, the threat is from development for leisure purposes such as second homes on otherwise pristine lakefronts. Another looming threat is fragmentation of ownership of the large tracts of forest in the northern part of these states, particularly in Maine.

As recently as the 1990s, Lilieholm said, large chunks of northern forest were owned by forestry companies, which periodically cut the trees and then let the forest regrow. Today, a significant portion of that land has been purchased by financial entities such as pension funds and real estate investment trusts, which hold onto them as investments to lower portfolio risk. These companies, Lilieholm said, only expect to hold onto the land for 10 to 15 years and then can sell it off as smaller parcels, possibly with the lakefront land sold separately to people seeking second homes.

New England’s forests have value far beyond aesthetics and their use as wildlife habitat, the report’s authors said. Forests provide a range of services valuable to humans, such as ensuring clean water and, perhaps most pertinent in this age of global climate change, binding up carbon dioxide in wood and soil.

The group called for cooperation across the region, in both the public and private sectors, to bring the report’s vision to reality. The Wildlands and Woodlands Partnership already has a network of about 60 conservation organizations. While cooperation is needed, increased public funding also will be important, since many property owners in rural areas are “land rich” but not wealthy and so can’t turn over land or development rights without compensation.