New England has been losing forestland to development at a rate of sixty-five acres per day—and Vermont is losing 1,500 acres of forest every year—according to a new report released today by the Harvard Forest and a team of authors from across the region including two scientists at the University of Vermont.
Public funding for land protection has also been steadily declining in all six New England states and is now half what it was at its 2008 peak. Land conservation trends have followed suit.
“Over the last decade, Vermont lost about one percent of its forest cover due mostly to suburban and rural residential sprawl, reversing a 150-year trend of forest recovery and expansion,” says co-author Bill Keeton, professor of forestry & forest ecology and Gund Fellow at the University of Vermont.
Conversion to development is the biggest near-term threat to forests, bigger even than climate change, the scientists report.
“If our goal is to make sure our forests in Vermont are resilient and able to adapt to the changes that climate change and invasive species pose, then the first critical step is to keep those areas forested,” says co-author Tony D’Amato, an associate professor and director of UVM’s Forestry Program. “That is often lost in our discussion of how to manage and conserve in the face of such future uncertainty.”
The new report, Wildlands and Woodlands, Farmlands and Communities, documents that public funding for land conservation in New England dropped fifty percent between 2008 and 2014 to $62 million per year, slightly lower than 2004 levels. The pace of regional land conservation has also slowed substantially from an average of 333,000 acres per year in the early 2000s to about 50,000 acres per year since 2010.
“The incremental chipping away of forest and farmland by scattered development is hard to see day-to-day but it adds up over time and represents a significant threat to the region,” said David Foster, director of the Harvard Forest. “If we stay on the current path, we’ll lose another 1.2 million acres of open land by 2060.”
Despite these trends, the authors assert that the targets outlined in their bold vision for the future of the New England landscape are still attainable and they identify opportunities for gaining ground.
“Vermont has led other New England states in terms of forest protection efforts, with combined federal and state spending for land conservation here at a per capita rate 4.6 times that of neighboring New Hampshire, for example,” says UVM’s Bill Keeton. “With this report we present a clear vision of strong and continued community-level engagement in farm and forestland conservation to compensate for rapidly declining federal and state funding across New England as a whole.”
In Vermont, twenty-three percent of the state’s land area is currently conserved as forest and farmland. The state ranks first in New England in per capita state funding for land conservation at an average of $6.70 per person per year for 2004 to 2014. Nevertheless, annual land conservation rates in Vermont have generally fallen back to early 1990s levels after a period of elevated conservation in the late 1990s, even as groups report that private landowners’ interest in conserving their land remains high.
This is the third in a series of Wildlands and Woodlands publications led by Foster, Keeton, D’Amato and a team of colleagues. Previous reports defined a regional vision that calls for conserving thirty million acres of forest—seventy percent of the region’s land area—and all remaining farmland. The vision proposes that most of the conserved forestland should be managed for wood products and other benefits, with ten percent managed as wildlands.
“Bill and I were also co-authors on the original vision for the New England landscape published a few years back and I also served as a coauthor on the original Wildland and Woodlands vision that was developed for Massachusetts before we explored a more regional approach,” notes UVM’s Tony D’Amato—who has one eye on the next generation of forestry scientists and professionals. “The message from this report is very consistent with what we teach and research in the UVM Forestry Program,” in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.
Triple the pace
“When we look specifically at forests in New England, it is clear that the impacts of land use will be far greater than those of climate change over the next 50 years,” said Harvard Forest ecologist Jonathan Thompson. “This may seem counter-intuitive given the major threat that climate change poses to all sectors of society. But climate change slowly alters the health and types of trees that grow whereas conversion eliminates forests altogether.”
The report’s authors say it is still possible to attain the Wildlands and Woodland vision by tripling the pace of conservation, reversing trends in public funding, putting more land to work for sustainable farming and forestry, and integrating land conservation with the planning of cities, suburbs, and rural communities to reduce forest loss and promote more efficient use of land for economic development.
"We need to do everything we can—a lot more than what we’re doing now,” says UVM’s Bill Keeton, “to keep our forests, and to keep them resilient.”