Study: Vermont forests shrinking 1,500 acres a year

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Vermont is losing 1,500 acres of forest a year and New England as a whole is losing nearly 24,000, according to a report released Tuesday by forestry researchers at Harvard University and the University of Vermont.

"Over the last decade," UVM forestry professor and report co-author Bill Keeton said, "Vermont lost about 1 percent of its forest cover due mostly to suburban and rural residential sprawl, reversing a 150-year trend of forest recovery and expansion."

The report listed several threats to New England's forests:

"The New England landscape faces the increasing loss of forest and farmland to residential and commercial development; ongoing parcelization and fragmentation of land; declines in state and federal land-protection funding; deterioration of iconic tree species—chestnut, beech, hemlock, ash, and elm—from introduced pests and pathogens; unsustainable forest and farm management in some areas; and, the challenge of maintaining public support for land protection and traditional uses of land (e.g., forest harvesting and animal grazing) amidst competing socioeconomic demands."

The new report urges New England states to triple the rate at which new lands are conserved in order to meet a conservation goal the same research team set in a 2010 report. That goal was to conserve 30 million acres of forest and another 2.8 million acres of farmland in the region by 2060. New England currently has about 32 million acres of forest, mostly in Maine.

To meet the conservation goal, the report says downward trends need to be reversed in funding for conservation and the amount of new land conserved each year.

Between 2008 and 2014, the report says, public funding for conservation around New England fell 50 percent to an annual amount of $62 million, which was lower than 2004 levels.

According to a UVM news release announcing the report, around 23 percent of Vermont is now conserved as forest or farmland and the state spends more per capita on land conservation than any other state in New England at around $7 per person per year.

But, another UVM forestry professor and report co-author, Tony D'Amato, said, "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."

The Harvard and UVM report says that New England today is one-third of the way to the 2010 goal but the region also faces accelerating deforestation and destruction of farmland.

If the 2010 goal is met, the report says, "protected forests (will) dominate the region, even within thickly settled areas."

The report also notes that most of the forested land would still be open to limited use for harvesting wood products and only around 10 percent, or 3 million acres, would be kept as wildland reserves.

The report says both forest and farmland provide significant environmental and economic benefits to Vermont and other New England states.

For instance, the report notes that New England forests absorb 760,000 tons of air pollution annually, which it calculates saves $550 million in health expenses and offsets more than 20 percent of the region's carbon dioxide emissions.

Forest and farmland, the report says, also play a central role in the region's tourism industry bringing in $10 billion a year.

According to a 2014 report from the New England Forestry Foundation, the lion's share of all of New England's forested land is in Maine, which — at nearly 20 million acres — makes up almost half of the region's total area.

U.S. Forest Service statistics included in the report show that Maine is almost 90 percent forested, so its total forested area accounts for nearly 55 percent of all New England forestland.

The Forest Service statistics also show that Vermont is around 78 percent forested and Massachusetts is only around 61 percent forested.

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