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Wildlands and Woodlands Wants to Protect a Whopping 70 Percent of New England’s Forest

August 25, 2017
wildlands-and-woodlands-harvard-forest
John BurkBorn from research at Harvard Forest, above, Wildlands and Woodlands aims to protect huge swaths of New England woods.

Preserving nearly three-quarters of New England’s forests is an ambitious goal. But it has to be. Forestland declining for the first time in 200 years is a big deal.

Thanks to Wildlands and Woodlands and related efforts by AMC and other groups, efforts are underway to permanently preserve much of the region’s iconic landscape and natural resources.

Wildlands and Woodlands is a science-based, long-term conservation vision for New England that engages partners from around the region, including land-protection agencies, academic researchers, and community organizations. Echoing the philosophies of conservationists such as Aldo Leopold, Gifford Pinchot, and Henry David Thoreau, as well as that of AMC’s own Maine Woods Initiative, its architects advocate a combination of forest preservation and active management—specifically, that 90 percent of conserved land be designated as woodland (responsibly managed for lumber, wood products, and public recreation) and 10 percent as wildland (where natural processes unfold with minimal human intervention).

The project got off the ground in 2005 at Harvard Forest, a 3,000-acre ecological research station in central Massachusetts established in 1907. Based on data that showed the forest cover was decreasing for the first time in two centuries and that more than 80 percent of undeveloped land was in private ownership, researchers proposed protecting half—or 2.5 million acres—of the state’s existing forestland by conserving another 1.5 million acres.

Following early success, Wildlands and Woodlands expanded its scope in 2010 to neighboring states, with a broader goal of protecting 70 percent, or 30 million acres, of New England forest by 2060. The initiative is now jointly overseen by Harvard Forest and Highstead, a conservation center and arboretum in Redding, Conn. Despite early progress, leaders are aware of the challenges ahead. “To reach the 2060 target, we must more than double the pace of conservation to protect the remaining 23 million acres,” says David Foster, the director of Harvard Forest.

More than 40 regional conservation partnerships (RCPs), or collaborative networks of public and private organizations, have formed to help achieve that vision—including two significant initiatives that advanced in 2016 with AMC support. The Northern Appalachian Trail Landscape Partnership is a group of agencies—including AMC, the National Park Service, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy—working to protect the Appalachian Trail corridor. Meanwhile, Connect the Connecticut is developing a coordinated conservation plan for the Connecticut River watershed, which is mostly privately owned and considered at risk for future development. AMC’s involvement includes land conservation and the development of the Connecticut River Paddler’s Trail.

“The ambitious goals of Wildlands and Woodlands have inspired our land trust to accelerate our pace of conservation from 100 to 1000 acres per year,” says Kristin DeBoer, the executive director of the Kestrel Land Trust, a Connect the Connecticut partner based in Amherst, Mass. “The vision is increasingly relevant and critical, as the threats of development and population growth continue to bear down on the Connecticut River Valley.”

At AMC, the approach of balancing management and conservation has long been a core philosophy. In addition to its Maine Woods Initiative—which has protected about 75,000 acres to date, establishing 120 miles of recreational trails, as well as a sustainable working forest, wildlife habitat, local jobs, regional tourism, and education—AMC is also a lead partner of the Maine Mountain Collaborative, which is working to conserve Maine’s western mountains.

All of those efforts add up. According to Foster, Wildlands and Woodlands is more than one-third of the way toward conserving its target of 30 million acres. The latest Wildlands and Woodlands report, to be released on September 19, addresses community-based revitalization efforts, such as farming and developing conservation economies.


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John S. Burk

John S. Burk, an outdoor writer and photographer, is co-author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Near Boston. He has contributed to publications such as Natural New England, Northern Woodlands, and AMC Outdoors. He lives in Massachusetts.