News

New Report from the Open Space Institute and the Wildlife Conservation Society Probes Biodiversity Protection in the Northern Forest

Thanks to specific protections included in forest easements conservation lands can allow timber harvesting for economic benefits and at the same time continue to provide critical biodiversity protection, according to the Open Space Institute (OSI) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

This conclusion is a principle finding of Conservation Easements and Biodiversity in the Northern Forest Region, a jointly produced report by OSI and WCS that examines the roles of working forest easements in supporting the flora and fauna of the Northern Forest. 

“The tools needed to conserve these forest communities are well understood in the forestry community and have proven effective,” said Wildlife Conservation Society scientist Jerry Jenkins, the author of the report. “The challenge is ensuring that the tools are used when they are needed. Ecologically important easements should require a biodiversity survey and management plan that identifies sensitive habitats and describes how they will be protected.”  The report concludes that such a plan is essential to ensuring sustainability for the multi-use tracts.

Over the course of the last decade, there have been major shifts in ownership in the Northern Forest, the 28 million acres of conifers and hardwoods that reach from the shores of Lake Ontario in western New York to the heart of the North Maine Woods. Conservation easements, and specifically working forest easements that allow some forms of logging and forestry activities but permanently prohibit future development, have been a powerful conservation tool for the region.

Land trusts hold six million acres of conservation easements across the country and more than half of these acres, over three million, are eased lands in the Northern Forest where timber harvesting exists side by side conservation efforts. 

“The Northern Forest has been a leader in developing and refining the working easement tool,” commented Kim Elliman, OSI’s CEO, “and we wanted to know how well we could protect biodiversity as forest harvests continued along side.” 

Jenkins’ research included an exhaustive review of the existing literature, detailed summaries of biodiversity and biodiversity management on four major easements and interviews with more than 60 conservation and forestry professionals. The easements studied received funding through the Northern Forest Protection Fund (NFPF), a capital fund administered by OSI, whose goal was to support large-landscape conservation deals that met the highest standards for sustainable forestry. The study resulted in a comprehensive assessment of biodiversity management on easement lands in the Northern Forest.  

In addition to an emphasis on the need for proper management of conservation easements, the report points out the shortcomings of existing management structures and tools for protecting biodiversity, and suggests ways that we might structure the next generation of easements to ensure a higher level of protection. 

The suggested changes are simple but fundamental: on ecologically-significant properties there should be comprehensive surveys of the existing biodiversity, and explicit biodiversity management and assessment plans, separate from the forestry plan, to protect these critical parcels.
 
The large-scale analysis identified gaps in the construction of working forest easements and suggests a suite of six conservation tools biological surveys, special management areas, forested buffer strips, a balanced forest structure, and standard wildlife management techniques will suffice to protect most of the species and ecological communities currently known in the Northern Forest.

A more difficult challenge posed by the report is whether conservation easements should go beyond preserving biodiversity and attempt to restore forests degraded from unsustainable harvests to a more natural and older state. 

WCS and OSI will distribute the report across the region as well as convene two roundtables this spring with invited partners and practitioners to develop guidance for the next generation of working forest easements.   The roundtables will be organized at an important time, as the 161,000-acre Finch Pruyn and Company easement agreement is finalized in the Adirondacks and the Northern Forest anticipates another surge in potential land sales by timber investors.  As a result of the distribution and roundtable dialogs, the two groups hope to improve the next generation of working forest easements.  
natural and older state. 

WCS and OSI will distribute the report across the region as well as convene two roundtables this spring with invited partners and practitioners to explore the findings from the report.   

The roundtables will be organized at an important time, as the 161,000-acre Finch Pruyn and Company easement agreement is finalized in the Adirondacks, and the Northern Forest anticipates another surge in potential land sales by timber investors.  As a result of the distribution and roundtable dialogs, the two groups hope to improve the next generation of working forest easements.

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