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Between the Lines: Not So Clear Cut

Who knows what’s best for our forests?

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Northampton? Progressive? Chris Matera mocks the idea, at least when it comes to the environment and the city’s stewardship of public lands, including its water supply and the watershed that feeds it.

“How can a ‘progressive,’ relatively wealthy city like Northampton, with widespread sentiment for protecting public forests and a desire to do something about global warming, force its citizens to subsidize cutting down its own important public forests while expecting poor third world countries to protect their forests… ?” Matera writes in a recent screed (maforests.org) lambasting Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz for allowing logging on water supply land.

When I spoke to Matera, he said, “Northampton is putting out the same boilerplate timber industry propaganda” the state uses to justify commercial cutting at the Quabbin Reservoir. (Beginning on page 9, we’ve published four letters responding to a March 6 guest column by Ellen Moyer calling the Quabbin forestry plan into question.) Matera called the city forestry plan a “sales job” driven by an industry seeking untapped resources on state land. While he didn’t criticize the city’s hired forester specifically, he said all foresters have a bias: “A forester is not out there to protect the forest; he’s there to produce timber.”

Matera, a key activist in the fight against biomass power in the state, points to scholarly abstracts and public comments from leading forest scientists such as David Foster at Harvard Forest in Petersham and Harvard’s Eric Chivian to support his own contention that public forests ought to be left alone. Chivian publicly objected to the state’s forestry plan for Quabbin and other watersheds, arguing that it failed to show selective cutting won’t cause more harm than good. Matera quotes Foster making a similar point: “In many situations… the best management approach is to do nothing.”

Matera’s stark and combative approach may draw attention, but are his claims credible?

Mayor Narkewicz told me that Matera has pressed a publicity campaign “heavy on hyperbole” without giving the city a chance to discuss and defend its plan. “I think Chris cares more about press releases than dialogue,” Narkewicz said.

Nevertheless the mayor said he will respond to Matera’s “misinformation” by putting out more details to the public, including a presentation to the City Council this Thursday, March 20. The mayor said Matera’s tactic of showing photos of small areas of logging surrounded by vast forest was “highly misleading.”

When I spoke to David Foster, the highly regarded forestry expert said he hadn’t reviewed Northampton’s plan. “I don’t know the issues on the ground,” he said. He was, however, very familiar with the licensed forester who developed the Northampton plan, South Deerfield’s Michael Mauri. “He does some work for us at Harvard Forest,” Foster said. “Mike has a good reputation and he’s a thoughtful guy. In general, I have a lot of respect for Mike.”

I asked Foster about Matera’s use of his quote about leaving the forest alone rather doing something to it.

“Chris could just as easily have quoted from another paper I wrote called ‘The Illusion of Preservation,’ which says there’s a powerful environmental argument to be made for harvesting of local resources,” he said. “While there are powerful arguments for leaving them alone, there are also strong arguments to be made for managing forests. What I like to see is a well-formed plan that can be discussed and defended.”•

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