State Programs encourage keeping private forestland forested

PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

GROTON — Preservation of private forestland was the subject of a recent meeting hosted by the Nashua River Watershed Association, with two programs outlined.

Both programs are supervised by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (EOEA).

First to speak was Steven Anderson, stewardship coordinator of the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), a department under the EOEA. He pointed out that Massachusetts ranks eighth among states in percentage of forest cover and over half of the state’s forestland is privately-owned.

The Forest Stewardship Program, which Anderson oversees, helps landowners with planning for and management of their woodlands.

A landowner wishing to enroll a wooded property in the Forest Stewardship Program, he said, would typically hire a licensed forester to help prepare the plan, which covers a period of 10 years.

Activities included in the plan would be based on the landowner’s particular long-term goals and objectives. Plan components also include detailed descriptions of current and desired conditions and maps of the ecological features.

When the plan is submitted, he said, department forester reviews the plan and approves it or requests modifications.

After approval, the landowner may be partially or fully reimbursed for the cost of plan development, depending on the acreage and location of the woodland and other restrictions. The reimbursement of 50 percent comes from Federal funds from the Forest Land Enhancement Program. For towns on the DCR stewardship focus list, an additional 50 percent comes from EOEA funds. The DCR Stewardship Committee decides which towns are included in the list which currently includes Groton, Pepperell, Shirley and Townsend but not Ayer or Harvard. The minimum acreage is 10 acres.

The deadline for submission of applications for this year is May 12.

The landowner’s obligation is simply to repay any cost-sharing funds if the property is developed as something other than woodland, or if any activities occur that are incompatible with the Stewardship Plan during the 10-year period covered by the plan. If the property is sold, the new owner is simply encouraged to update the Plan.

There is no obligation to actually carry out any of the Plan activities Anderson emphasized the public benefits that flow from private forestland, for example, air and water quality, erosion control, recreation, fall foliage tourism, wildlife habitat, economic activity related to wood products and biomass energy: firewood and woodchips for power generation. The high quality of water from the Quabbin Reservoir is largely due to the extensive surrounding forestland, much of it privately owned.

The Forest Stewardship Program is often used in combination with the Chapter 61 and Chapter 61A laws regarding tax assessment.

Assessment is normally at fair market value for purposes of development, but certifying land under these programs allows for substantially lower assessments and possibly other tax advantages. Certification involves legally binding commitments, including a line on the property filed with the deed for the period of certification. A Forest Stewardship Plan can fulfill the Chapter 61 requirement for an approved management plan.

Asked if several contiguous neighbors could combine the wooded parts of their properties to make up the 10 acre minimum, Anderson said this has never been done, but it could certainly be considered.

Licensed foresters are still taking on new clients, but interested landowners should begin the process by the middle of this month to submit an application for this year’s program.

Additional information on the Forest Stewardship Program is available at www.mass.gov/dcr/stewardship/forestry/service/steward.htm.

The second speaker was Joe Smith, director of the Forest and Wood Products Institute at Mount Wachusett Community College. His organization is contracted by EOEA to run the Forest Viability Grant Program in partnership with The Nature Conservancy. The mission of this program is to “provide technical assistance and financial support to forest landowners in order to increase the financial viability of private forests and maintain high standards of ecological health.”

This program is modeled on the Farm Viability Enhancement Program. Forest landowners can apply for business planning services in return for a five-year covenant on their property.

Applicants must either have an existing forest-based business or an idea for establishing one. The plan is created through a team effort of the landowner and a team leader and other experts in specific areas of the proposed enterprise such as business management and marketing. With the business plan in place, the landowner may then apply for implementation funding in return for a 20-year covenant on the property.

The deadline for applying for this program is May 1.

Additional information on the Forest Viability Grant Program is available at www.mwcc.mass.edu/programs/FWP/ForViab.html