For a while I have been meaning to reference this essay in Northern Woodlands magazine, a publication of the Center for Northern Woodlands Education. The piece is both informative and eloquent. In the magazine, it is titled “The Long View” — not because it looks ahead (which it does) but because it was written by Stephen Long, one of the magazine’s founders.
Every few years, I’m treated to a recurring dream, an archetypal dream that I’ve heard others describe as well. In it, I have just moved into a new house, and as I settle into my new place, I walk into a room and see a door I don’t remember. When I go through the door, I see a whole new room. Oh my god, I say to myself, I didn’t even know I had that, what incredibly good fortune. It gets even better – I keep going and I discover all sorts of new rooms. Sometimes there’s a hayloft in a barn, sometimes a roomy attic. It’s a wondrous dream, and I wake up full of a sense of possibility.
In the first few centuries that Europeans explored and settled North America, a dream like this pervaded the collective – and then national – consciousness. The pioneers kept going west, and they kept finding more: more forests full of timber and fuel, more rivers teeming with fish, more food, more goods in a land of plenty. Possibilities were limitless. This continent was a gold mine, a cornucopia, a land of infinite opportunity.
The piece goes on to extol the many benefits of forests and then describe the economic problems faced by private forest owners and how these lead inexorably to forest fragmentation.
It’s a time-honored rural tradition to sell off a building lot when the going gets tough, because land is often a person’s only savings account. The trend toward smaller parcel size has seemed inexorable as families or individuals sell or bequeath parts of their holdings when life circumstances change: four siblings inherit the family farm and divide the land, or a daughter is given a 10-acre lot so she and her new husband can build a house.
This ordinary rate of parcelization, however, will progress geometrically if we all lose the opportunity to sell timber. Parcelization is a cause, and fragmentation is the effect. As parcels are developed, driveways and dwellings fragment the natural system. All of the ecosystem services that accrue in an intact forest are compromised in a fragmented landscape that becomes not rural but suburban. The process would also quicken the erosion of the culture and backwoods ethos that is cherished by those born here and has been a drawing card for many who’ve moved here.
While the magazine covers the Northeast, the problems Long mentions are certainly not limited to that region.
Long himself does not discuss working forest easements as a possible solution to the economic problems of forest owners–although content in earlier issues of the magazine does give voice to this approach.
Working forest easements prevent development, reimburse land owners for lost development value, and allow sustainable forestry to continue. TPL most recently used a working forest easement to protect 3,363 acres at Stowe Mountain in Maine.