By Bob Durand

A destination for seekers of history, ocean beaches, and culture, Massachusetts is less famous for its forests ... except briefly amid the foliage season this time of year. But Massachusetts – with 62 percent of its land under trees – is, in fact, the eighth most heavily forested state in the country as a percentage of land areas. With some 3.2 million acres of forest here, the Commonwealth’s woodlands are a gem hiding in plain sight.

The tremendous and often irreplaceable public benefits derived from healthy forests - from clean water and wildlife habitat to recreation and support for rural economies - are well understood. Speaking over 80 years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt noted that, “Forests require many years to mature; consequently the long point of view is necessary if the forests are to be maintained for the good of our country.”

Unfortunately, the long view hasn’t always prevailed. In fact, deforestation ruled across New England from colonial times until the mid-1800s, as land was cleared for farms and pasture. It took over a century, but this trend was eventually reversed as New Englanders began relying increasingly on agricultural imports from the Midwest, and abandoned farm fields reverted to trees. By the end of the 20th Century, Massachusetts forests had recovered to their highest level in three centuries.

New research by Harvard Forest-led scientists, however, reveals that Massachusetts and neighboring states are now experiencing a new wave of deforestation. And, left unchecked, this trend will likely do more serious and lasting damage to our environment, economy, and quality of life.

Published last month, “Wildlands, Woodlands, Farmlands and Communities,” the third in a series of Harvard Forest reports, highlights the fact that 24,000 acres of New England forests and farms (7,000 acres in Massachusetts alone) are now lost to development annually. Across New England, that’s 65 acres a day morphed into subdivisions, shopping centers, and pavement.

In the face of slumping state and federal funding for open space (a 50 percent funding drop in New England since 2008), the pace of land conservation has recently slowed by two-thirds. Report authors say staying this short-sighted course will mean losing another 1.2 million acres of open land in New England - 300,000 acres in Massachusetts, equivalent to 12 times the entire land mass of Worcester - by 2060.

Development is a bigger immediate threat to the region’s forests than climate change, the report says, noting that these hardscape changes transform the character of land in permanent ways that can’t be reversed as easily as the forests-to-pasture trend of the past. In many cases, transitioning back to forest will be impossible – and, so, we have a swiftly-closing window of opportunity to act.

To safeguard Massachusetts forests and their inherent ecosystem and economic benefits requires embracing a bold vision. The “Wildlands, Woodlands, Farmlands and Communities” authors envision a program to permanently conserve 30 million acres of New England forests (70 percent of the region’s area), including all current farmland, by 2060. While the plan would have most forestland managed for wood products and other sustainable uses, 10 percent would remain wildland reserves. To accomplish this, they call for tripling the region’s current rate of conservation, reversing public funding trends, and taking a broader view of how the whole society - from rural communities to cities and suburbs - can advance the vision.

Across New England, most conservation is supported by public funding, reflective of the public benefits forest conservation provides. The Harvard Forest report underscores the connection between protecting open space and ensuring economic returns for owners of those lands. For example, tax incentives for private landowners to donate easements and land have permanently protected 4.2 million acres in New England since 1980.

Current investment falls short of the need, however. In Massachusetts, where 80 percent of forests are privately owned, there are more landowners looking to conserve their land than there are public funds available to do so. At a time when the benefits of forests for climate and flood protection are more important than ever, we cannot afford to miss these opportunities.

Instead, policymakers should play up the strong return-on-investment that public funding for forest conservation can yield. For example, giving landowners tools and incentives to conserve their land and use it more efficiently for economic growth should figure prominently in discussions about climate change preparedness. In this way, we’ll both enhance funding opportunities for landowners and ensure that public investments prioritize the lowest cost, lowest carbon options to combat and cope with our changing climate.

While, decades ago, Roosevelt spoke of the intangible value of forests for “giving fresh strength to our people,” conserving forests now hinges on unleashing their ability to fuel tangible economic strength. “Today’s land conservation,” notes one report author, “is about putting land to work to support economic growth and solve problems.” We should seize the opportunity.

Robert Durand, of Marlboro, who was Massachusetts Secretary of Environmental Affairs from 1999 to 2003, is president of Durand & Anastas Environmental Strategies in Boston, a consulting company on environmental issues and land use. He was a Democratic state representative from Marlboro from 1985 to 1991, and then a state senator for the Middlesex and Worcester District from 1991 to 1999.

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