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Healey administration extends pause on state forest logging contracts for 6 more months

A truckload of recently harvested white pine trees, in March 2023. The trees were cut on a privately owned forest in Belchertown, Massachusetts.
Nancy Eve Cohen
A truckload of recently harvested white pine trees, in March 2023. The trees were cut on a privately owned forest in Belchertown, Massachusetts.

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey's administration says it will continue a pause on new logging contracts in state forests for another six months, as officials look to develop guidelines that more fully acknowledge the role of forests in combatting climate change.

The state has not signed new logging contracts since Healey became governor in January. The additional six months is a more formal delay, the administration said.

The move, announced Wednesday with a series of other forestry strategies, essentially follows through on Healey's campaign promise for a temporary moratorium on such projects during her first year in office.

The "climate-oriented forestry practices" will be developed with help from a panel of scientific experts, the administration said, aiming to "increase carbon storage and resilience to climate change."

Some activists have urged Healey to stop all logging projects on state lands, citing old growth forests' role in carbon sequestration and storage.

But the administration said the science supports minimal, strategic logging on a sliver of state lands, combined with other efforts to promote forest conservation.

"New England forests are among the most resilient in the country. We must take a comprehensive approach to keep them healthy and intact," Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Rebecca Tepper said in a press release. "The actions we are taking today will conserve our forests and their vital roles in absorbing carbon, cleaning polluted air, providing local wood products, and supporting biodiversity."

Some environmental and wildlife conservation groups have stressed the importance of selective logging to encourage habitat growth, and Mass Audubon is endorsing Healey's plan.

"This science-based forest conservation plan values adaptation and biodiversity and dovetails with Mass Audubon’s ongoing work to ensure our forests capture and store more carbon, protect wildlife, and support local economies," the organization's president, David O'Neill, said in the press release.

'No reason to continue to pause projects'

In recent days, the Healey administration briefed various stakeholders on the plan, including the six-month pause. Those briefed include a group representing the logging industry that previously complained of an "information vacuum" on the issue.

A timber harvesting vehicle, called a forwarder, grabs and transports trees that have been cut on private forest land in Belchertown, Massachusetts, in March 2023.
Nancy Eve Cohen
A timber harvesting vehicle, called a forwarder, grabs and transports trees that have been cut on private forest land in Belchertown, Massachusetts, in March 2023.

"She promised to do this [in the campaign], and that's what she's doing," said Chris Egan, executive director of the Massachusetts Forest Alliance. "So it's not shocking or surprising, in particular."

But it is unnecessary, Egan said.

"There's no reason to continue to pause projects that were approved last year while you create these guidelines," he said.

Egan said those previously approved — but not finalized — contracts already took into account climate change, under the administration or former Gov. Charlie Baker. Egan said timber harvesters made investments based on expected state contracts.

"For some of these guys, they've borrowed money to buy millions of dollars worth of equipment, you need to keep that working," Egan said. "And for some of them, work on state lands ... that can be 30% of their business. So to lose 30% of your business for a year, that can cause some economic challenges, certainly."

'We have to change'

Glen Ayers of Greenfield is a member of the Trees as a Public Good Network, a coalition of groups in the state that wants to protect trees on state land.

Ayers was pleased Healey had followed through on her campaign pledge. But he wants the protections to continue long-term.

"I'm not saying that they couldn't ... address invasive species or public safety, but it would have to be legitimate instead of using those things as excuses to continue business as usual," Ayers said Wednesday. "Because right now our lands are being degraded. Their ability to capture and store carbon is being degraded and we can't keep doing that in a climate emergency. We have to change.

Other parts of the plan

In addition to the logging pause and creation of new guidelines, the Healey administration's announcement includes expanded grants for private landowners who want to use their land to boost carbon sequestration.

Officials also plan to work closer with timber harvesters and mills, offering additional financial assistance for them to minimize carbon loss in their operations.

Some state lawmakers have pushed to expand the amount of state land put in "reserve" and off-limits for cutting. The new plan calls for creating a committee of land trusts, local officials and conservation groups to set new goals, and eventually boost funding to help purchase private lands.

No firm funding numbers for these efforts are currently available, the administration said, but will be announced "in the coming weeks."

The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs also plans to work on a public "dashboard" with key statistics about forest health and climate change efforts, including the presence of invasive pests, the amount of carbon sequestered in state forests, and — potentially — how much forest has been harvested.

Massachusetts has a goal to conserve 30% of all land in the state by 2030 and 40% by 2050. A spokesperson said the percentage stands at 27% today.

The process

The administration said it is convening a scientific panel to assist in the drafting of the new forestry guidelines. Its members include Paul Catanzaro of UMass Amherst, William Moomaw of Tufts University, the New England Forestry Foundation's Jennifer Shakun, and David Foster, professor emeritus from Harvard Forest.

"Our forests can provide many different benefits and those benefits have to include natural areas that support natural processes where there is no harvesting," Foster said in an interview Wednesday. "But society uses a lot of wood and we need to get that wood from somewhere. And it would be better for Massachusetts to get a substantial amount of that wood from its own backyard."

During the drafting of the guidelines, the administration said, there will be a public meeting to solicit initial comments. That will be followed by the release of a draft, and then final guidelines by Dec. 7.

Healey previewed this forestry announcement during an appearance on GBH radio in April, when she mentioned a plan that included experts and public hearings would begin "in short order."

Nancy Cohen contributed.

Updated: June 7, 2023 at 5:11 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include comments from Glen Ayers and Davis Foster.
Sam Hudzik has overseen local news coverage on New England Public Media since 2013. He manages a team of about a dozen full- and part-time reporters and hosts.
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