Connecticut needs both wildlands & woodlands — not one or the other
Northeast Wilderness Trust

Connecticut needs both wildlands & woodlands — not one or the other

We live in uncertain times. As we face the twin crises of climate change and extinction — and their relationship to human well-being — the importance of forests continues to take center stage in public discourse.

Recent commentaries on the topic across Connecticut point to a wide range of views. Some discuss the irreplicable value of leaving parts of the landscape unmanaged as wildlands. Others explain how important and necessary forestry practices are and the industry that enacts them. Together, these perspectives form a holistic approach to protecting and managing New England forests, which is the approach taken by Wildlands, Woodlands, Farmlands, & Communities (WWF&C) — an initiative my organization participates in.

To mitigate climate change, reverse the extinction crisis, and chart a resilient path forward for people, when it comes to forests, New Englanders ought to consider an “all of the above the strategy” that includes far more wildlands than exist today and managed woodlands to support local jobs and produce local products. How to balance those complementary uses ought to be the aim of our energies.

Over the past five years, I have co-presented with Bob Perschel, the executive director of New England Forestry Foundation, in an attempt to bridge divides and find common ground. What has emerged from those conversations?

Perschel and I agree that what is needed most across Connecticut and New England is to stop losing forestland to development and that the correct approach in stemming forest loss embraces a meaningful increase in permanently protected wildlands alongside well-managed woodlands. We need both.

Perschel and I also agree that wildlands can’t produce the needed timber products our society depends on and that managed woodlands can’t produce all of the ecological, climatic and spiritual values of wildlands. Again, we need both.

One recent commentary on the topic by Joseph Orefice makes the argument that “Connecticut forests must be centered on advancing multiple-use forest management” but then calls it reckless to permanently protect forests as wild and unmanaged. While I agree with most of what Orefice says in his commentary, in the spirit of advocating for a wildlands and woodlands strategy, two points that he makes require further inspection.

First, Orefice claims that “taking human intervention out of the equation now would be unprecedented and reckless.” Far from unprecedented, there is great precedent across the Northeast for landscape-scale, permanent wildlands protection — just not in Connecticut. As one example, in New York’s Adirondack and Catskill parks, nearly 3 million acres have been constitutionally protected as forever-wild, much of that for over a century.

Far from reckless, the Adirondack Park is a globally notable example of what largescale forever-wild protection actually can do for carbon storage, biodiversity protection, soul-nourishment, and a robust outdoor recreation-based economy. Meanwhile, while lagging far behind New York, in New England, more than 100 organizations and state, federal and municipal agencies have already designated more than 1 million acres of permanently protected wildlands.

Second, Orefice goes on to state, “In fact, this has been termed ‘The Illusion of Preservation’ by scientists.” This misstates the premise of the study by Mary M. Berlik, David B. Kittredge and David R. Foster of Harvard. It actually calls for a multi-pronged strategy that includes permanently protected wildlands and wise management of woodlands. Indeed, Strategy 3 of the report “Increase Protection of Forested Areas” seeks to “provide opportunities for natural ecological patterns and processes that are unimpeded by human influence.” What is more, the scientists referenced by Orefice went on to form the aforementioned WWF&C Initiative that calls for the permanent protection of at least 10% of New England as permanently protected wildlands.

As a complementary strategy to protecting actively managed forests and farmlands, there are many reasons to protect Wildlands. Allowing more forests to grow old, without intervention, is the lowest-cost option for increasing carbon storage and increasing overall biodiversity on the landscape. Wildlands also contribute to a resilient landscape — they offer quiet places for reflection, and they serve as baselines and reference points for foresters and land managers.

Today less than 1% of Connecticut is currently conserved as wildlands. Across all of New England, it’s just 3.3%. Realizing the goal of 10% of New England’s landscape as permanently protected wildland will require at least 2.7 million more acres being set aside from logging. Critically, we must achieve that goal while embracing the benefits that accrue from forest management and working together with the forestry industry.

The discourse surrounding forest management often finds itself entrenched in dichotomies between wildlands and woodlands. The optimal approach lies not in favoring one over the other, but rather in recognizing the intrinsic value of wildlands and the practical value of woodlands — and striving for a far better balance than exists today.

Jon Leibowitz is the executive director of Northeast Wilderness Trust.

The Journal occasionally will offer articles from CTMirror.org, a source of nonprofit journalism and a partner with The Lakeville Journal.

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