In the Face of Forest Loss, Scientists Call for Accelerated Conservation

New England forests are at a turning point. For the first time in 200 years, forest cover—which peaked at 80 percent of the landscape in 2000—has begun to decline in every New England state. If sprawl and development continue at current rates, 63 percent of the landscape may be developed by 2030, jeopardizing the natural infrastructure that supports public water supplies, outdoor tourism and recreation, the local wood economy, wildlife habitat and regional resilience to climate change. In response to this challenge, 20 scholars, including the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s research landscape ecologist, Jonathan Thompson, have published a forest conservation vision called Wildlands and Woodlands: A Vision for the New England Landscape, which examines these trends and promotes strategies for permanently retaining 70 percent of New England in forest over the next 50 years. The science behind the vision comes from decades of research supported primarily by the National Science Foundation and its Long-Term Ecological Research Program.

The vision would triple the amount of conserved land in New England. Sixty-three percent of the landscape would be “Woodlands,” forests conserved by willing landowners and sustainably managed for multiple uses, from recreation to urban tree cover to wood products. Seven percent of the landscape would be “Wildland” reserves, areas selected by local communities to eventually become old-growth forests, which today only make up 0.2 percent of the region’s forests. The vision also notes the economic and ecological benefits of retaining the farms that today cover 7 percent of the landscape. Achieving all of these goals would still leave room for up to a doubling of well-planned development in the future.

A New England landscape that remains four-fifths covered in forest will require a doubling in current rates of land conservation—no small task given that the majority of forests in New England are privately owned. The Wildlands and Woodlands report includes a suite of collaborative, voluntary approaches to conservation across private, public and non-profit sectors. It also recommends that state and federal agencies expand funding opportunities and tax incentives for forest conservation. “New England has, for nearly four centuries, been a leader in public, private and non-profit conservation innovation,” said James Levitt, co-author of the report and director of the Harvard Forest Program on Conservation Innovation. “With the groundswell of regional interest in Wildlands and Woodlands specifically, and in landscape-scale conservation more generally, New Englanders are again well-positioned to provide leadership in innovative conservation, this time in the 21st century.”

Washington seems poised for a model of this kind. Most recently, President Barack Obama’s “America’s Great Outdoors” initiative is looking to reconnect Americans with special places by conserving culturally and ecologically significant landscapes. The benefits of this level of forest conservation in New England will extend to all 24 million residents in the region, and the strategies for its implementation serve as a model for the east coast and beyond. “I think it’s clear that we all stand to gain from the W&W vision,” said Rob Lilieholm, co-author and professor of Forest Policy at the University of Maine in Orono. “Landowners will have more options in how they choose to manage their lands. The region’s forest products sector, vital to the economic health of countless rural communities, will benefit from a secure source of timber. And finally, residents and visitors alike, both now and in the future, will be able to enjoy these working landscapes and the wide range of services they provide.”

David Foster, lead author of the Wildlands and Woodlands report and director of Harvard Forest, sums up the vision’s goal: “By employing the phenomenal capacity for conservation that lies in the countless individuals, private organizations, and public agencies in New England, we can protect the natural infrastructure that supports all life while creating a prosperous future for our region and its residents.” As of today, the report is available for download on the project website: