A dozen federal, state, and local agencies and organizations are undertaking a conservation and economic development project in the most densely forested area of Massachusetts. It is also an area of above average poverty and unemployment rates.
The three-year $1.5 million project is multifaceted and includes land preservation, projects to improve the health of the soil and water, and protect endangered species in the northern Berkshire hills. The project area encompasses 28 towns in parts of Berkshire, Franklin and Hampshire counties and could include the participation of 140 forest landowners.
The project also includes an extensive feasibility study on developing a regional wood-pellet plant that could produce jobs and provide a local market for forest products as well as fuel to heat local schools, municipal buildings, and houses.
Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matthew Beaton lauded the effort that he said would result in a healthy forest that provides needed local jobs.
" This area is so rich with one of our greatest natural resources and it is a great opportunity to explore a resource we have not reached a full potential with," said Beaton. " Hopefully this will be the start of great things to come in this area."
$638,000 for the project comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program that is part of the 2014 Farm Bill. More than $900,000 comes from state agencies and private organizations including Massachusetts Forest Alliance, Mass Audubon, and the Franklin Land Trust.
" Over 600 applications were submitted to the USDA for funds from this program and this was just one of 100 awards made in the nation," said Christine Clarke, Massachusetts State Conservationist for the USDA.
" We are hoping to address the loss of soil, enhance water quality, and improve the economic viability of forestry in the area and that includes finding markets for local forest products," said Clarke about the project's goals.
Details of the project were announced Thursday at the offices of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments in Greenfield.
James Kelly of the Massachusetts Forest Alliance said economic opportunities for landowners in the project area have been hard to come by up to now.
" It is the large conglomerates in places like northern New York, northern Maine, upper New Hampshire and Vermont that have the combination of ready equipment operators, landowners, and available markets."
Mass Audubon will expand its “Foresters for the Birds” program into the project area and try to enlist 140 landowners to make changes to their properties to increase bird habitats. Henry Tepper, President of Mass Audubon,said the state is seeing declines in both forest-dwelling and grassland-dwelling birds.
" And you are talking about some of our most iconic and best loved birds like ruffed grouse, white-throated sparrow,wood thrush, and a number of forest-dwelling warblers."
The “Foresters for the Birds” program started five years ago in Vermont and was introduced in Massachusetts 18 months ago. Landowners have responded positively, according to Tepper.
" These are people who have a very strong conservation ethic. They understand it is important to protect birds. Birds tell you a lot about the overall health of your ecosystems," said Tepper.
The conservation partnership program is also expected to have a long-term benefit on climate change by increasing carbon sequestration and reducing the use of imported fossil fuels.