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Open Space Institute announces study highlighting conservation challenges and opportunities in western Massachusetts

New York, NY - June 28, 2005 - Many Massachusetts towns west of Worcester, a 2.6 million acre area that contains much of the remaining large, intact forests and productive farms in southern New England, lack the funding and tools to protect their working landscapes, according to a new study by the Open Space Institute. 

The study, Western Massachusetts: Assessing the Conservation Opportunity, reports that cuts in state acquisition funding from a high of $73.6 million in 2002 to a low of $18 million in 2004 and $27 million this year have created a three-year backlog in the state farm protection program and slowed the pace of forestland protection. 

With 65 percent of the state's 520,000 acres of farmland and 80 percent of its 3.1 million acres of forestland in the western half of the state, the region is a focal point for conservation. Its working landscapes, which face growing threats from subdivision, road building and commercial development, are the backbone of the area's economy and culture. Working farms and forests help maintain rural employment, buffer and connect existing conserved land, protect wildlife, provide clean water, and preserve the region's rural quality of life. About one quarter of the region is under some form of permanent conservation protection, notes the study. Overall, the state of Massachusetts has the 6th largest park system in the nation and the fourth largest amount of protected land. 

The drop in state acquisition funding, along with implementation of Governor “Mitt” Romney's Smart Growth program, poses significant challenges for the region. Smart growth often refers to policies that simultaneously support urban reinvestment, compact development and land conservation. However, the Romney Administration has departed from this integrated vision by sharply deemphasizing land protection, normally a critical component of Smart Growth strategies. Critics in the conservation community say that clustered development and improved land use planning are essential, but that the zoning reform necessary for such improvements takes too long and can't compete with accelerating development. They also argue that the window for protecting larger landscapes in the west is closing as land prices escalate and fragmentation of the land base continues. 

With reduced funding has come new criteria for distributing what funding remains. The Romney Administration evaluates town applications for acquisition funds on a range of criteria that include housing production, public transportation, compact development and brownfield redevelopment. With only 52 of 140 points related to open space protection, the Commonwealth Capital application favors towns that are closer to 'buildout' or maximum capacity. With nearly 20% of western Massachusetts towns with populations under 1,000, compact development and public transportation systems are often not applicable. As a result, rural towns are scoring lower than urbanized towns, further limiting their opportunities for acquisition funding. Towns are further stymied in managing growth by antiquated state zoning law that, among other things, does not permit subdivision review for development along an existing road; Massachusetts is the only state in the nation to not allow such permitting. 

Despite these challenges, some conservation groups are trying to adapt Smart Growth to more rural areas. A few towns such as Amherst are pioneering new land use planning tools, such as clustered development, while nonprofit groups are helping towns improve how they plan and secure local funding for land acquisition through passage of the Community Preservation Act (CPA). The CPA allows participating towns to adopt a real estate surcharge for open space protection, low-income housing and historic preservation. Support for CPA has accelerated in the east with recent passage by Merion, the 100th town to adopt the CPA. Other groups are attracting record amounts of federal funding for farm and forest conservation, including the largest Forest Legacy award in the state's history, which will be used to protect 20 different tracts of land North of the Quabbin Reservoir. 

While local success stories can be found across the state, many communities west of Worcester lack the funding and tools to protect priority landscapes. Commonwealth Capital, which awards funding based on individual town applications, is also limiting the scale of conservation in some of these towns. In the past, the state might have spearheaded larger conservation initiatives across a number of towns. Today, such efforts are highly unlikely with the result that some important landscapes located either in towns without the interest or the capacity to score well on Commonwealth Capital are at risk. 

“The state's Smart Growth program is visionary and necessary, but as configured it's insufficient to conserve critical landscapes in the state's western section,” said Peter Howell, OSI's Director of Conservation Finance and co-author of the study. “To ensure the program's success, the state needs to consider increasing acquisition funding and introducing greater flexibility into its use of Smart Growth screens on this funding. With these changes, the program has the potential to become a national model.” 

Funded by the Kohlberg Foundation, OSI's six-month study was conducted during the fall and winter of 2004. It assessed key trends, threats and opportunities to glean information that would facilitate and improve conservation efforts in the region. The report's authors analyzed conservation plans of public agencies and nonprofit organizations, conducted a series of five focus groups that involved 52 people, and completed separate interviews with 25 land trust leaders, public officials and conservation figures. As a result of the study, the Open Space Institute will be administering a $2 million low-interest loan fund

The study documents conservation in three primary sub-regions: the Berkshires, a 725,000-acre region that contains ecologically significant landscapes, the greatest amount of public ownership and moderate level of threat; the Connecticut River Valley, a 1.2 million-acre, agriculturally rich region with little public ownership and significant development threat; and the Quabbin region, a 830,000-acre area that is closest to the development pressures emanating from the city of Boston but where many towns still retain their rural character. The report catalogues state and NGO formal planning efforts and describes work by land trusts and public agencies in each of these regions. 

Other key findings of the study include: 

  • Several nonprofit groups and public agencies are experimenting with what “smart growth” might look like in western towns, e.g., integrating low-income housing with conservation; developing transfer of development rights programs, which attempt to shift development from less developed areas to town centers; and revising smart growth criteria to better accommodate large scale land protection. 
  • Various collaborative efforts involve a wide array of national, statewide, regional and local land trusts. Some of the most promising initiatives share conservation priorities and integrate the functions of key staff such as fund raising and mapping. Collaborative action, which requires more strategic action and pooling resources, could facilitate more effective conservation efforts in the region. 
  • Western Massachusetts, where the Community Supported Agriculture movement has its roots, is a national leader in innovative, niche farming that often helps maintain farm viability in regions with rising land prices. The rich soils of the Connecticut River Valley provide an opportunity for viable small farm businesses. 
  • New state reserves have the potential to create a united vision for land protection in Massachusetts while protecting wildlife, enhancing rural economies and expanding recreation opportunities. The state of Massachusetts is advancing a plan to create as much as 120,000 acres in new reserves, most in the west, while a research team at the Harvard Forest is advancing a more ambitious effort recommending 250,000 acres in reserves buffered by 2.5 million acres and forming Woodlands Councils to work with private woodlot owners. 
  • Demand for both permanent and flexible interim capital for existing conservation deals in the region tops $30 million. 

“Western Massachusetts: Assessing the Conservation Opportunity” was prepared by OSI's Peter Howell and Abigail Weinberg 

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