The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and the Franklin Land Trust recently received an award from the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. This award funds these three groups to investigate ways to turn the extensive, privately-owned woodlands of Western Massachusetts into a nationally-recognized national forest that generates revenue.
The towns included in this plan for Berkshire County are Adams, Cheshire, Clarksburg, Florida, New Ashford, North Adams, Savoy, Williamstown and Windsor. For Franklin County, the towns are Ashfield, Buckland, Charlemont, Colrain, Conway, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, Monroe, Rowe and Shelburne.
The new model for a national forest designation is important for several reasons. First, it could provide federal funds and technical assistance to expand activities on private lands that would support tourism in the region. The model presented for designation was originally presented in 2009, but town officials initially opposed the idea, expressing concern that a national forest designation might involve taking additional private lands off local tax rolls.
Franklin Regional Planning Director Peggy Sloan believes that the new proposal is better than the one in 2009 because it allows for “an opportunity to think about how a new model for a U.S. Forest Service designation would work but have the lands remain in private ownership.”
Additionally, according to Sloan, acquiring a National Forest Designation would not only generate revenue, but it would also focus on a “forest-based economic development like recreational tourism, forest management and research on new forest-related manufacturing technologies.”
Under this new model, a National Forest Designation could bring federal funding that would allow for the purchase of conservation easements from willing landowners. This helps to ensure a permanent forest base to serve as a backbone for the forest economy. The U.S. Forest Service would also likely establish a visitor center in the project area and could provide additional tourism opportunities.
Participation in the program is voluntary, and even so, Franklin Land Trust Executive Director Richard Hubbard said that a multitude of people have come to him showing interest in the development of the program.
“We’re excited,” Hubbard said. “We have so many more landowners coming to us than we have resources. This could be a new source of funds coming into this area for land conservation, and it’s also apt to be a very powerful economic driver, too, encouraging more tourism.”
All of this information was presented at meetings. The first meeting was held last Tuesday for Berkshire County at the McCann Technical School in North Adams. The second meeting for Franklin County will be held tonight at the Shelburne-Buckland Community Center.
The meetings serve as a way to convince the population as well as town officials about the benefits of pursuing the project. In order to get everyone on board for the project, Sloan hoped to emphasize the difference between the old model of the project that had been circulating for a few years and the new one.
Currently, the idea has $149,000 in funding from the State Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. About $70,000 of this is for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. Sloan says that approximately 20 towns between the two counties need to be in support of the project to get local government support and continue to advance in the project.