A tree-cutting moratorium? Loggers, activists, wildlife biologists await Healey's state forest plan
When Maura Healey was running for Massachusetts governor, she called for a moratorium on commercial tree-cutting on state forests. It was meant as a pause, while the state figures out how its forests can help address climate change.
Since taking office, Healey has stayed quiet about this. But loggers say a moratorium is essentially already in effect. And both opponents and supporters of Healey’s pledge want details.
'Everything’s on a big halt right now'
On a chilly March morning in Belchertown, logger Ken Conkey and his sons were harvesting some Eastern white pine trees in a privately owned forest.
“That’s my son, Hayden, in one of our forwarders,” Conkey said, pointing to a vehicle that looks like a big tractor with an arm to grab the logs after they’re cut.
“He’ll come along and he’ll pick all these trees up, put them on it and bring it out to the landing to be shipped,” Conkey said.
The felled trees are shipped to pulp and sawmills which buy the wood — part of our rural economy.
Besides logging on private land, a quarter to a half of Conkey’s business is usually on state land — last year in the woods in the Quabbin Reservoir and the Chester-Blandford State Forest.
Typically, Conkey pays the state $100,000 to $150,000 a year for the wood he’s contracted to cut. He sells it, which helps him make payments on his machinery, including this forwarder.
But unlike other years, the state isn’t asking loggers for bids.
"Everything’s on a big halt right now," Conkey said.
But officially there isn't a moratorium right now.
"Officially no, but reality is, yes, there is a moratorium right now," Conkey said.
The Massachusetts Forest Alliance confirms no new state contracts for timber harvesting went out to bid so far this year. The alliance represents loggers, foresters, forest landowners and saw mills.
'Just leave it alone'
Lynne Man of Lunenberg voted for Maura Healey, in part, she said, because of Healey’s campaign pledge to pause tree cutting on state land. Man is a volunteer with the Sierra Club Forest Protection Team and a member of Climate Action Now Western Massachusetts.
Her prescription for promoting biodiversity, climate resiliency and forest health is summed up in a few words:
"Just leave it alone," she said.
We started looking into this after asking listeners about their hopes for the new Healey administration. Man was one of several people who wrote in, in support of Healey’s campaign platform to temporarily stop cutting trees on state land and come up with a plan that uses forests to address climate change.
Man said untouched older forests offset carbon emissions much more than young ones.
"When you cut down a forest thinking that young trees are going to sequester more carbon than old trees, they do so at a higher rate, but they're never going to catch up to the carbon that's actually sequestered and stored in an older tree," she said.
Not exactly never, but it would take many decades for the young trees to sequester as much.
Man recalls visiting a town forest in Lunenberg about five years ago after trees were harvested.
“It was devastating," she said. "All these trees that had been killed and the habitat that had been destroyed. It was horrible."
Now that Healey is in office, Man wants her to make good on her pledge about state forests.
"On the website for now-Governor Healey, it doesn't appear anywhere. So I'm concerned about that. Is this moving forward or not?" Man said.
Shortly after this interview, Man’s group and others met with the state’s new climate chief, Melissa Hoffer. According to Man, Hoffer said the administration is working on a plan that will be announced soon.
Hoffer, Healey and the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, Rebecca Tepper, all declined to be interviewed for this story. Tepper’s office emailed a statement:
“The Healey-Driscoll Administration is currently reviewing the forest management planning process and meeting with stakeholders to better implement climate-smart practices in forest management," spokesperson Maria Hardiman wrote. "The Administration is committed to open and transparent communication as Massachusetts works to ensure our natural and working lands are managed to maximize carbon sequestration and mitigate climate harms.”
'It's just a series of trade-offs'
Our state forests not only capture carbon during photosynthesis, they also store it, according to Jonathan Thompson.
"It's an incredible resource, not just in terms of sequestration, but also in the carbon stock that reside in the state," said Thompson, research director and senior ecologist at Harvard Forest in Petersham, a department of Harvard University.
Thompson, was the lead author of a 2020 forest carbon study for Massachusetts, part of a decarbonization roadmap for the state.
State climate officials have asked Thompson to help them understand the science of whether stopping timber harvesting on state lands would address climate change.
"There’s no right or wrong answer," he said. "It’s just a series of trade-offs."
Although the state may increase the amount of carbon on public land by not cutting trees, Thompson said, there may be more harvested on private lands.
"If all we've done is moved the harvesting around to other forests, either in Massachusetts or outside of the state or outside of the country, it's not going to affect how much carbon is in the atmosphere," Thompson said.
A wildlife-focused argument against a moratorium
Besides scientists, climate activists, and loggers — wildlife biologists are weighing in on what it would mean to stop tree harvesting.
On a visit in March, Mike Akresh peered through binoculars across the Montague Plains, a state wildlife management area where many trees were cut to create wildlife habitat. Akresh is the director of the Conservation Biology Program at Antioch University New England and has done research on the Montague Plains for 15 years.
He spotted a prairie warbler nest, woven from grasses and ferns.
"As you can see, really tiny, really small, and in these shrubs that are growing because of the tree harvesting," Akresh said, cradling the nest. "And there will just be four little eggs and then four little nestlings that fit into this little cup."
Akresh said this area was first harvested in 2004. That created habitat for the prairie warbler and other bird species, like the Eastern whip-poor-will, along with some bee and moth species that need areas of shrubby habitat to breed.
"It used to be hundreds of trees and closed-canopy forest and now it’s more open-canopy," he said. "You can see the blue sky. There are shrubs and forbs and blueberry growing in the understory. And you still have some scattered trees."
In the past, shrublands like these may have been created naturally. But humans now control fires — as well as insect and beavers. So state wildlife area managers sometimes use logging to open up the landscape to help species thrive.
"I strongly would disagree with this moratorium and strongly oppose any kind of moratorium," Akresh said. "There will be areas throughout the state that are unmanaged and unharvested. But you still need areas for wildlife that need to be created even in a single year or multiple years to create this type of wildlife habitat."
In a given year, most of the more than 635,000 acres of state-owned forest land that are part of the state's water supply, park and conservation and wildlife management areas are not harvested — well below one percent annually, according to the executive office of energy and the environmental affairs.
But, as of now, less than a quarter of those acres are designated as state "forest reserves," meaning they can’t be managed or cut.
Although the Healey Administration hasn’t announced its plans, western Massachusetts state Reps. Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton and Aaron Saunders of Belchertown have filed a bill that is similar to Healey’s campaign promise.
The proposal calls for a pause on tree cutting while the state reviews how it manages its forests, and it would increase the percentage of state forests that would be protected.
This story is the first in a series of NEPM reports inspired by questions our listeners wanted us to ask the new governor. Let us know what you think Healey should focus on during her first months in office.