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Woodlands Partnership to Join Forest Legacy Program
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
02:32AM / Thursday, November 19, 2020
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A DCR map shown at Tuesday's meeting shows the communities, in green, that are part of the Forest Legacy Program. The Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership communities are in white in the top left.


Williamstown's Hank Art chairs Tuesday's board meeting of the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership.
 
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The board of the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership on Tuesday decided to have the non-profit join the U.S. Forest Service's Forest Legacy Program.
 
The move will help landowners in the partnership's communities gain access to federal grant money to support conservation restrictions for their forested lands.
 
"The Forest Legacy Program's mission is to protect environmentally important forest land," said Lindsay Nystrom, the program's coordinator at the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. "Land can be protected by purchasing full fee or through conservation restriction.
 
"Acquisition is only made if an amicable agreement is reached between the landowner and the program."
 
Nationwide, the Forest Legacy Program has protected 2.8 million acres of woodlands; about 17,000 acres of that land has been in Massachusetts, Nystrom told the MTWP board.
 
The program is designed to protect working forests through sustainable forest management, she said.
 
"Today, we're here to discuss if the partnership would like to add your towns," Nystrom said. "Adding your towns to the Forest Legacy Program would make these conservation funds available in your region. The Forest Legacy Program is likely to see significant increase in funding.
 
"We all know the forests in the Mohawk Trail region are particularly important."
 
Nystrom said this summer's passage of the Great American Outdoors Act gave the Forest Service an infusion of new dollars to help initiatives like the Forest Legacy Program.
 
Whit Sanford of Shelburne Falls supported the MTWP joining the Forest Legacy Program but said not all residents of the member towns might embrace it right off.
 
"I don't think the towns would necessarily be fully informed about the program, and the apprehension of the federal government is fairly strong here," she said. "As long as we can explain it, I think it's a good program to go with."
 
Peggy Sloan of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments raised a specific concern about the program.
 
"I think the preference we heard from towns is they wanted these lands to remain on the tax rolls and not have an increase in public ownership," Sloan said, referring to the "full fee" acquisition side of the Forest Legacy Program. "Is it possible to join the program but make sure it's a conservation restriction?"
 
Nystrom said she was not sure but thought perhaps that could be written into the agreement that would be worked out between the MTWP and the commonwealth's Forest Legacy Committee.
 
Neal Bungard of the U.S. Forest Service, who joined Nystrom on the call, said the agreement could be written to say there is a preference for conservation restrictions.
 
"I do think that's an important point being raised about ownership," Rich Chandler of Ashfield. "The Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership went through quite a bit of this in the early years with our individual towns. I don't know if we can vote on this tonight without more outreach to the towns.
 
"In Ashfield, there are less non-profit-owned lands than in a lot of the other towns in the partnership, and there's still a fair amount of resistance. Conservation restrictions are looked upon favorably. Fee acquisitions by government and non-profits -- most people want to see another filter in there.
 
"Tax base is a piece of it. But also local control and the home rule nature of communities is a piece of it."
 
Chandler ended up voting along with 16 of his fellow board members to join the Forest Legacy Program but with a "strong desire to see it be conservation restrictions." Kevin Fox, the representative of the FRCOG executive committee and a resident of Buckland cast the lone dissenting vote.
 
The two-hour virtual meeting also saw the full MTWP agree to endorse the recommendation of its administrative agent search committee and enter negotiations with the New England Forestry Foundation to serve the partnership.
 
The discussion leading up to the vote echoed some of the concerns raised at the search committee level about NEFF's expertise in sustainable economic development, part of the core MTWP mission.
 
"They do admit their focus is more on what they're saying, but they do have as part of their budget hiring an economic development entity that would be approved by the board," MTWP board member Robert O'Connor of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs told his colleagues. "We won't find an expert in all three goals [ofthe partnership]. But we have one who is a viable organization who is an expert in one or two of our goals, and they'll form a partnership to fill in the gaps they have to."
 
The board voted 18-0 to develop a contract with the NEFF, the lone respondent to a request for proposals issued by the MTWP earlier this year.
 
The decision to hire the New England Forestry Foundation comes as the partnership's contract with FRCOG and the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is winding down. The Franklin and Berkshire County agencies have provided administrative support to the MTWP since its planning stages, and board members took the opportunity Tuesday to give the professionals a literal round of applause toward the end of the virtual meeting.
 
"On behalf of the board and myself, we are eternally grateful for the talents Tom [Matuszko] and Peggy [Sloan] have brought to shepherding this forward," MTWP Board Chair Hank Art of Williamstown said.
 
In other business on Tuesday, the MTWP Board agreed to ask Matuszko and Sloan, as one of their final acts, to ask state officials whether there can be an exception made to the two-year time limit municipalities had to join the partnership.
 
Sixteen of 21 eligible communities chose to sign on to the initiative before the time ran out under the partnership's enabling legislation. Buckland, Colrain, Florida, Hawley and Savoy did not join, but one of those towns, Hawley asked for an extension after its process was stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
A recent town meeting in Hawley -- held after the MTWP clock had run out -- endorsed membership, Art told the board. Sloan told the board that her staff could explore whether there was any relief available through legislation or executive order in Boston to allow Hawley and the other towns a little more time given the fact that the pandemic has disrupted local government in so many communities.
 
"If the board decides to do this, it would be important to reach out to the other four communities and let them know we're still open for business," Adams' Joe Nowak said. "It would be great if we had every community we focus on in the partnership because it only makes it stronger."
 
The board voted unanimously to advocate for an extension. Without it, any of the five eligible towns would have to wait three years before having another chance to join the partnership.
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