By: David Abel

New England’s forests made a comeback over the past century, after colonial settlers cleared most of them for agriculture.

But now the region’s forests are again in retreat, as suburban sprawl and other development consumes about 65 acres a day of woodlands from Connecticut to Maine, a new report has found.

At the same time, public spending on land protection has declined in all six New England states, dropping by roughly half since its 2008 peak of $119 million, according to the report, which was released this week by researchers at Harvard Forest, a research institute of the university in Petersham.

“These changes to the land compromise the vital natural resources delivered by forests and farms that have supported local economies for centuries, and undermine the beauty of New England’s landscape and distinct communities,” the report stated.

The region’s pace of land conservation has also slowed markedly, from an average of 333,000 acres per year in the early 2000s to about 50,000 acres per year since 2010. Massachusetts is losing 7,000 acres of forestland a year to development, and land conservation rates have fallen in recent years, the report found.

At the same time, public funding for land conservation in New England has dropped over the past decade to $62 million in 2014, according to the report.

In Massachusetts, where 24 percent of the land is conserved as forest or farmland, the state and federal government spent an average of $4.55 per person annually on land conservation between 2004 and 2014, which was less than Vermont, Rhode Island, and Maine.

Massachusetts spent an average of $31 million a year on land conservation in that time.

“The incremental chipping away of forest and farmland by scattered development is hard to see day-to-day, but it adds up over time and represents a significant threat to the region,” said David Foster, director of Harvard Forest. “If we stay on the current path, we’ll lose another 1.2 million acres of open land by 2060.”

The report, titled “Wildlands and Woodlands, Farmlands and Communities,” calls on the New England states to conserve 30 million acres of forests by 2060, or about 70 percent of all land, and maintain another 7 percent as farmland.

Much of that land could be used for wood products, such as timber, while at least 10 percent should be maintained as wildlands, the report stated.

“We need to join land protection and forest management,” said Bob Perschel, executive director of the New England Forestry Foundation, a land trust and forestry advocacy organization in Littleton, and one of the report’s authors.

He hopes eventually more homes and buildings will be built with locally grown, newly developed wood products than with steel and concrete.

The authors argue that the region can increase land conservation by tripling the pace of conservation, increasing public funding, and devoting more land to for sustainable farming and forestry. They also are urging the states to set targets for annual land protection and municipalities to focus on conservation to reduce forest loss.

Andy Finton, lands and climate director at The Nature Conservancy, called the report a “wakeup call.”

“Our health and well-being are dependent on the intact landscapes in Massachusetts and New England, including the water we drink, the quality of our air, and our ability to address climate change and cope with its impacts,” he said.

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