This week Harvard Forest and Highstead doubled-down on the Wildlands and Woodlands vision (W&W) with a new report: Wildlands and Woodlands, Farmlands and Communities: Broadening the Vision for New England. Now, seven years after the W&W vision first called for protecting 70% of New England’s forests, 31 authors (full disclosure: I’m one of them) from universities and conservation NGOs have come together to: (1) broaden the vision in response to new threats; (2) document progress towards the goal; and (3) inspire New Englanders to invest in their communities, forests and farms, natural infrastructure, and health. The report is the most comprehensive synthesis of information on trends in land use, natural resources, climate change, public financing, and the practice of conservation in New England. I want to share some highlights from the report with all of you, because together you make up the engine behind land protection in the region.
First the bad news. New England is losing an average of 24,000 acres of forest each year, or about 65 acres every day. If this rate continues, we could lose another 1.2 million acres in the next 50 years. Imagine an area three times the size of the White and Green Mountain National Forests and Acadia National Park combined, paved over. The report also shows that forest fragmentation from development is a greater risk to the regions forests and natural resources than even climate change. While climate change will gradually affect our forest composition, development levies immediate and permanent loss of forest ecosystems and productivity. Indeed, conserving our forests is an immediate step we can take to cope with climate change.
More bad news (but don’t despair, the good news is coming). Public funding for conserving our forests and farms has been halved since 2008. Between 2004 and 2014, state, local and federal agencies invested nearly $1 billion in land conservation in the region. The stream of funding peaked at $119 million per year in 2008, but has declined to just $62 million in 2014. This decline is largely due to state conservation programs, such as the Land for Maine’s Future fund, New Hampshire’s Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, and Connecticut’s Community Investment Act being stalled or raided for other purposes.
Now for the good news. We have all of you. That’s right, the collective impact provided by the RCP Network and others is absolutely remarkable. Our greatest conservation asset (besides the land itself, of course) is our Yankee ingenuity and land ethic. You have all fought hard to put together the resources needed to protect the lands you live among and those you love from afar. You’ve looked under the couch cushions, shaken your piggy banks, and inspired our great philanthropists to invest.
Thanks to your creativity, resourcefulness, and foresight, New England is now one-third of the way to the W&W goal. Twenty-six percent of forests and 12% of farmland are permanently protected from development. And half of the region’s 9.8 million acres of protected forest were protected in just the past 25 years—long after most of the large public parks and forests were established—and at a rate of protection four times faster than in previous decades. And you have stretched your funds further, using less costly conservation easements for 70% of all acres protected in the last decade.
Lately I have been telling anyone who would listen that the W&W vision has become a full-on movement. A movement that is stitching together the individual visions of private landowners who wish to leave their legacies, who wish to keep the forests as forests, and who wish to keep working the land sustainably. In developing the new report, we talked to countless conservationists, including many of you, who told us landowner demand for help in protecting their land remains high. The threat of losing our New England heritage plus the generosity of landowners and your commitment to helping them has fomented the movement. It is your movement.
Sure, recent trends in public finance are disheartening. To be clear, achieving this bold vision will require monumental investments in our land, in our natural infrastructure, and in our future. We estimate reaching the W&W goal will cost nearly $23 billion through 2060. That sounds like a lot of money, but it equates to just $36 per person per year. That’s about the cost of one latte per person per month. That’s a small price to pay for ensuring our landscape FOREVER.
The new report lays out some steps we can take together to turn it around. For example, conservation finance experts from around New England and the U.S. came together this past March to put their heads together on how we’ll raise the capital needed to achieve the vision. The group made the case for expanding and replicating some existing successes, such as NRCS’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program and Massachusett’s Community Preservation Act. You can use these tools now and many of you have.
New ideas were pitched as well. For example, could landowner aggregation help us cash in on some of the $100 million landowners are raising through carbon offsets (see Page 8 of our separate report here for some great examples of carbon for conservation). Or how about working with health insurers and community hospitals to use Medicaid to pay for trees? It will take innovation fueled by experimentation to regain full momentum. And it will take coordinated regional efforts—such as those of the New England Forest Policy Group—to turn good ideas into public policy. We look to you, our strongest asset, to help us make these prospects reality. We implore you, our greatest W&W champions, to find your next big thing and go for it. We will be right there with you.
W&W is a movement. W&W is a freight train. We may have slowed a bit to pick up some cargo. But in the spirit of Woody Guthrie, this train is bound for glory, this train. And glory is a future in which our great, great grandchildren inherit our wildlands and woodlands, farmlands and communities.