Video of low-impact logging demo in Limington

Sousa family sells Walnut Hill area to land trust

(courtesy photo Rob Sousa and his sister, Ruth Johnson, recently made a generous donation of land in Alfred to the Three Rivers Land Trust.)

ALFRED — An agreement has been reached to conserve an additional 214 acres of woodlands in the Walnut Hill area of Alfred, an area known for its deep woods, clear streams and rare critters.

The Sousa family, of Sanford, recently signed an agreement to sell the land to Three Rivers Land Trust for its appraised value and not to exceed $200,000. A boundary survey is expected to be completed this spring with an appraisal and closing conference to follow. Funding for the acquisition is being provided by a grant from the Maine Natural Resources Conservation Program (MNRCP), which will hold a conservation easement on the property.

Keeping the woods in its natural state honors the wishes of late Albert Sousa, of Sanford, according to his family.

“That piece of land, of all that he acquired, was always his favorite, maybe it was because it was so close,” said David Sousa, of Calais. “I’m excited to see it remain in its natural state. I know the land trust was hoping to log some of it, but the funders wouldn’t allow that. It’s so rare today to find a piece of woods untouched. You almost never see it. This has got some mature trees. It’s only going to get better, with a little care.”

The property lies within the 6,000-acre Walnut Hill Focus Area, which ranks as a conservation priority in Maine’s Wildlife Action Plan because it is home to many rare and endangered species, most notably Blandings turtles and Northern Black Racer snakes. The property also supports many large pine and hemlock trees that survived the Fire of 1947 and still bear the telltale “cat-face” scars. A black gum tree on the property was dated to be at least 330 years old. The property has not has not been logged since it was acquired by Albert Sousa in the early 1960s. A resource inventory last summer documented a mosaic of streams, vernal pools and pocket swamps supporting a variety of rare plants and animals. There is a greater density of streams supporting native brook trout in Walnut Hill than anywhere in York County, according to Trout Unlimited.

Three other wooded properties in Walnut Hill are already under conservation easements: two owned by the Town of Alfred, totaling 52 acres, and an 88-acre parcel owned by Three Rivers.

Three Rivers plans to continue to allow public access. The property is skirted by an unmaintained dirt road used by snowmobilers and other outdoor recreationists. Additional trails may be developed, according to Three Rivers president Jean Noon. The land trust had planned to use the property to demonstrate sustainable forestry techniques, but the MNRCP program stipulated that timber harvesting be limited to the removal of diseased or hazard trees.

“We were thrilled to get support from MNRCP for this project and understand their position that this remain forever wild,” said Noon. “We, as a land trust, do support sustainable forestry and believe it can improve air quality, water quality and carbon storage.”

Three Rivers teamed up with Forest Works! to secure funding the acquisition. The total grant award was $260,000, which includes funding for an appraisal, boundary survey, and a stewardship endowment.

In New England, collaboration reigns to keep woods intact

As modern development tests the strength of New England’s forests, conservationists and landowners are teaming up to protect the region’s woodlands.

New England has long been hailed as nature’s success story. Even after early settlers cleared land for agriculture, native forests were able to grow back. But now, modern development is taxing their vitality. Data collected over the past few years suggest forest cover in the Northeast is on the decline.

Groups of dedicated conservationists and landowners are determined, however, to reverse the trend.

“There was concern the woods were losing their integrity,” said Lee Burnett, the spokesman for Forest Works, a regional conservation partnership focused on conserving southern Maine’s forests, managing them sustainably, making them available for public use and protecting them from too much development. “This group came together to try to keep the woods as woods.”

Burnett and others saw the historically dense woods being parceled and thinned out to make room for encroaching housing developments. They teamed with area land trusts, conservation groups, the Maine Forest Service, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and a landowners association to form Forest Works.

The grant-supported group buys land easements and some land parcels outright. It also educates landowners about the benefits — like tax breaks — of maintaining lands as forests, how to manage forests sustainably and the importance of public lands.

“Private landowners do a lot — they get taxed — and there are a lot of regulations on private land,” Burnett said. “Nobody comes up to them and says, ‘That’s a great thing, to have a snowmobile trail across your property.'”

Forest Works is one of nearly 30 regional conservation partnerships in New England. Such collaborative efforts started cropping up about 10 years ago as conservationists launched an effort to save not just parts of forests, but entire ecosystems.

“Regional conservation partnerships are growing rapidly, and we feel that over the next several years we will, in fact, start to increase the pace and scale of conservation in New England,” said Emily Bateson, the conservation director at Highstead, a nonprofit dedicated to conserving New England’s forests.

The importance of groups like Forest Works and Highstead hit home in 2010 when scientists from Harvard, Yale, Brandeis and other northeastern universities issued a report detailing forest cover’s decline in all six New England states.

The study’s authors used historical data and estimates to track New England’s forest cover over the decades.

Although forests appear to be diminishing now, they took their biggest hit just after the 1850s, when agricultural activity cleared them out. Forest cover then reached about 58 percent, the study found. In Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, it was closer to 30 percent.

But over the next 100 years, forest cover rebounded, peaking at about 80 percent land cover just after 1950.

Today, forest cover is on the decline again. The scientists estimated 78 percent of New England is still covered by forests, but there has been a marked decrease in most states.

Forest cover in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts is currently less than 60 percent and approaching 50 percent land coverage. Vermont’s forest cover has dipped below 75 percent, and Maine’s forest cover has hit a plateau at around 85 percent.

Collaborative spirit

Foresters say collaboration is the only way to conserve large amounts of land in New England. Because of the region’s settlement history, there are few swaths of federally owned land, and most land is parceled out among many different owners.

With so many parcels, ownership changes hands frequently, and it’s especially challenging to conserve entire ecosystems.

But New England is uniquely suited to collaborative land management. For hundreds of years, New England’s small towns owned communal land, lending a spirit of collective care to forest maintenance.

“It’s neat because it’s a traditional way of conserving land and making sure lands that are conserved fit the local community’s need,” said Jad Daley, climate program director for the Trust for Public Land. “That long tradition has had a renaissance in New England.”

Although the area is relatively small, it’s home to nearly 35 percent of the country’s land trusts, according to the Land Trust Alliance.

“This region has more [land trusts] per area than any other region in the country, and that’s new since I started work,” said Robert Perschel, a conservationist and the executive director of the New England Forestry Foundation.

Today, land trusts in New England thrive and work cooperatively with local, state and national groups.

But on the national scale, some programs are facing hard times.

The president’s proposed 2013 budget would cut funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund in half, from $900 million in 2012 to $450 million in 2013. The LWCF provides matching funds to state and local governments to acquire and develop public recreational areas as well as to acquire land for conservation purposes.

At the same time, conservationists have high praise for the Community Forest Program, which passed as part of the 2008 farm bill and is suited to New England’s unique needs. The Community Forest Program awards grants to community or regional organizations to carry out their own projects. It issued its first 10 grants last summer, two of which went toward supporting community forests in New England.

“This is a program that can fit the diverse range of opportunity you see in New England, and for that reason, it’s one of the most essential tools going forward,” Daley said.

The slow economy has also had a positive effect on forest preservation by helping to curtail invasive development.

“The economic downturn is an opportunity to take a deep breath and focus more on conservation,” Bateson said. “Even though the philanthropic dollars may have slowed, so has the development pressure.”

The Forest Legacy Opportunity Project – Description and Proposal