How the MassConn RCP Leveraged $2.4M to Conserve 1,000 Acres

The MassConn Sustainable Forest Partnership received a $2.4 million Forest Legacy Program grant in 2021 to protect 1,000+ acres of privately owned forest in Central Massachusetts. Two of the conservationists behind the effort say the work takes planning, patience, persistence, and guts. 

Morneau Farm property in Southbridge and Dudley, Massachusetts. Photo Credit: Opacum Land Trust

The U.S. Forest Service, in partnership with state agencies, administers the Forest Legacy Program (FLP) to encourage the protection of privately owned forests through conservation easements or land purchases. Ed Hood, former coordinator, MassConn Sustainable Forestry Partnership, and Amy Connery, chief operating officer of Opacum Land Trust, the organization that is implementing the project, shared what they learned from the multi-year process to preserve 1,011  acres in Massachusetts. Conserving this land was a significant step forward in achieving the goals of MassConn, a Regional Conservation Partnership that involves land trusts, municipalities, private landowners, non-profit organizations, government agencies, and foundations from 38 towns in South Central Massachusetts and Northeastern Connecticut. 

Robert F. and Jeanne R. Para Family land in Southbridge, Massachusetts. Photo Credit: Opacum Land Trust

Prior to the arrival of Hood, now executive director, Norcross Wildlife Foundation, the MassConn partnership was instrumental in conserving 1,495 acres of forest in Northeastern Connecticut through the Forest Legacy Program in 2015 and 2016. Hood’s predecessors at MassConn also laid the groundwork for its current Forest Legacy Project, Emerald Forest Borderlands, by using strategic mapping to select four large focus areas in Massachusetts, identifying priority parcels based on their conservation value, biodiversity, ecological diversity, and presence of native species. 

The team spent a year working on the grant application, and although they knew there were no guarantees, they figured that even if they weren’t successful the first year, their effort wouldn’t be wasted, Hood says. “You want to go big. We were being bold. We figured, ‘Let’s charge ahead.’” At the time, Opacum had two other large grants it was working on: one was a great success and the other wasn’t, he says. “You have to take risks.” While conservationists can’t anticipate every challenge they’ll face, they can rely on past experiences and seek guidance from partners or peers if faced with a dilemma for which they can’t find a solution, he said.

A crucial aspect of private land conservation is finding interested landowners and working with them to conserve their land through a conservation easement. This requires building relationships and trust with landowners. After identifying parcels to target, the Opacum team made initial contact through a letter mailed to owners of large properties, inviting landowners into an initial conversation about conserving their land. 

This first step alone is unlikely to yield a strong response from landowners, so the letters are followed up with an introduction from their forester. “One of the key ways to make connections is through foresters. ”Connery says. In this case, landowners with at least 25 acres and a forest management plan with a forester qualify for a lower real estate tax rate in Massachusetts and Connecticut. “Forest managers develop credibility with landowners, so they are much more likely to talk with someone from a land trust if a forester makes the introduction,” she says. 

Para Family land in Southbridge, Massachusetts. Photo Credit: Pete Westover, Conservation Works LLC.

Connery also advises letting private landowners know they should expect the sale of conservation easements to be a multi-year process. If the landowner perceives it’s a transactional relationship, they’ll more likely walk away when a delay or challenge inevitably comes up along the way, Hood and Connery say. Each landowner is different, and it’s important to listen to their stories: Sometimes buried in a story that may seem extraneous is a clue about the family’s connection to the land and their motivation for preservation. It’s best, they say, to build relationships with the landowners so trust can develop naturally. Laney Wilder, current executive director for Opacum Land Trust who works directly with the landowners to implement this program, sets reminders to check in with them once a month. Keep landowners in the loop on the progress of their land in the program, and if you have no news, tell them that. 

Touring a habitat management site. Photo Credit: Opacum Land Trust

One of the challenges conservationists face relates to the disconnect between landowners’ expectations of the monetary value of conservation easements and the requirements of funders relating to the land’s assessed value. “Try to remember wanting as much as we can get is a universal trait that we share when we’re selling something of value to us,” Connery says. “Try to be reasonable and direct and listen to people. Everyone is interested in conservation at some level, but they need to be compensated for it to make sense for them and their families.” 

Para Family land in Southbridge, Massachusetts. Photo Credit: Opacum Land Trust

The FLP can fund up to 75% of the value of the conservation easement, so Connery and her partners leveraged the federal dollars to obtain private foundation funds to contribute toward the costs associated with purchasing easements, garnering another $220,000 in foundation grants. These additional funds will help to cover required due diligence costs that have increased substantially since they applied for the grant (such as surveys, title exams, and appraisals), acquisition costs (the value of many of these parcels has also gone up), and the administrative costs to manage the project. While the FLP allows landowners to sell easements at full value, Opacum Land Trust requires all landowners to sell their easements for a maximum of 75% of their value to meet the 25% match. 

How does Opacum, a nonprofit with a small staff wearing many hats manage both the personal and practical aspects crucial to this complex process? Spreadsheets for keeping track of landowner interactions, their priorities, and the stages of the transaction. And partners from within their RCP, MassConn such as state agencies and other conservation groups. Opacum also leveraged the power of an informal network of landowners in the area, called woodland ambassadors, to find landowner candidates interested in conserving their land in the region. Further, they used Bluesky grant funds MassConn received to support the labor necessary to write such a complex grant proposal. 

What would Connery tell other RCPs interested in the Forest Legacy Program? “Just do it. It’s worth it,” she says. “You’ve got great networks and peers being able to help. Don’t be afraid to take a leap.”  Large grants or funding sources like the FLP are critical to meeting land conservation goals. “Without funding of this level, we would never have been able to take on this large, multi-parcel conservation project.” 

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Q&A with 2023 Conservation Interns Reveals Passion, Curiosity, and Innovation

The autumn season always ushers in much excitement and activity at Highstead. Fall foliage begins to blanket Highstead’s grounds as we enter the final stretch of planning and preparing for the RCP Network Gathering. Our team welcomes the change and transition the season brings, as it marks the beginning of the Fall Internship Program. Since 2004, Highstead has maintained its goal of committing to the future of conservation by investing in aspiring conservationists, students, and recent graduates and cultivating an environment of curiosity, ambition, and growth. The program provides opportunities for each intern to pursue their professional development goals, through hands-on conservation experience.

Bringing in a wave of fresh energy, innovation, and diverse thinking, Highstead’s 2023 Fall Conservation Communications and Events Interns, Renee Comings and Katie Vartenigian, sat down for a Q&A to share a bit about their backgrounds, goals for the internship, aspirations, and more. 

Renee Comings (She/Her)

Tell us a little about your background.

I was born and raised in Rockaway, New Jersey and went to Ithaca College in upstate New York, where I graduated with a BS in Cinema in 2020.

What drew you to Highstead’s Internship Program and what do you hope to gain from your time here?

I want to use my skills in digital media and marketing to deliver relevant and important information to people who need it. I care deeply about the environment and working to mitigate climate change, and the internship at Highstead is a great opportunity to act on my values in a way that truly makes a difference.

What skills and experiences do you hope to bring to the Highstead team?

Interestingly enough, I originally wanted to be a film director in Hollywood, but two months before I was supposed to graduate, COVID hit New York and a lot of my plans were put on a shelf. The pandemic was a time of hostile division, and it felt like political communication issues were actively pulling the humanity of our country apart at the seams. I knew there had to be a better way to represent data and research; a way that transcends differences and bias. So I shifted my plans and began to build my career in the direction of science communications. I spent about two years creating videos and content for Cornell University, before I started working as a communications professional at a medical non-profit. I gained a lot of experience using social media to market public health campaigns and writing educational material. 

My marketing experience, eye for video development and writing, and my endless empathy are the traits I’m bringing to Highstead. It will be really rewarding to contribute my skills to this team, connecting environmentalists together at the RCP Network Gathering and delivering impactful messages to those who are actively working toward land conservation in New England.

Tell us about some of your passions and hobbies.

Outside of work, I love to forage for natural edibles, watch movies with friends, lift weights, play music in my band, “Mushroom House,” and cook healthy, delicious meals. 

Do you have any future goals or aspirations you’re working toward right now?

I would love to continue to contribute toward environmental goals and the mitigation of climate change. And aside from work, I cannot wait to get married and start a family. I look forward to teaching my children about the wonders and beauty of our natural world. 

Katie Vartenigian (She/Her)

Tell us a little about your background.

I was born and raised in Glastonbury, Connecticut, so I’m a Connecticut local! I graduated from the University of Maryland, where I got a degree in biology. After college I started doing seasonal conservation work to gain some field experience, heading off first to join a backcountry trail crew in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas. The next summer I returned to California to do a season of spotted owl research for University of Wisconsin – Madison, then spent the fall working on an organic farm in Oregon. This past summer I did a season with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service down in Chincoteague, Virginia, working with endangered shorebirds, sea turtles, and anything else wildlife-related on the refuge. In between seasonal jobs I’ve been bartending/waiting tables to save as much money as possible, and traveling to see friends. 

What drew you to Highstead’s Internship Program and what do you hope to gain from your time here?

Highstead’s Internship Program sounded like a good fit for me because I was looking to develop some of my communication skills in the conservation industry. I’ve gained a lot of awesome experience with the hands-on part of conservation, but that’s only half of it – a lot of the important work conservationists do is in the office. Highstead really wants to foster our growth, and has been a new challenge for me that I know I’ll gain a lot from. 

What skills and experiences do you hope to bring to the Highstead team?

I’ve had some pretty varied work experiences, which I think helps me to understand the interests and needs of a lot of the different stakeholders that make up RCPs. I also love writing, which is definitely a useful skill in a job like this that requires a lot of writing and communication skills!

Tell us about some of your passions and hobbies.

I enjoy creative writing, reading, birding, lots of little craft projects, seeing live music, and spending time with friends and family.

Do you have any future goals or aspirations you’re working toward right now?

In general, I’m interested in land management. I could see myself working on a refuge or with conservation easements – helping to steward and maintain the land, engage the local community in nature, and protect a part of New England, my home. But I’m not too worried about having it figured out down to the letter. I feel like I’m headed in the right direction, and Highstead is part of that! 

Category: News


Reforestation: An Unheralded, Yet Powerful, Natural Climate Solution in New England

Natural Climate Solutions (NCSs) are strategies to steward the earth’s vegetation to increase the removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and to reduce CO2 emissions. Natural reforestation, i.e. the spontaneous regrowth of forest vegetation on non-forested land that historically supported forest, is one of the most potent and cost-effective NCSs. Yet, strangely, it is often overlooked.

The world’s forests currently absorb about 30% of annual CO2 emissions. Natural reforestation, if implemented to its full potential across the globe, could absorb an additional 25% of the world’s annual CO2 emissions. The power of reforestation comes from the much higher accumulation of carbon that occurs in forests compared to non-forest vegetation such as grass (Fig. 1).

A common misconception is that reforestation requires planting trees, and thus the associated cost of nursery seedlings and labor. This can be hundreds of dollars per tree and labor costs over several years. But in regions like New England in which the vegetation naturally reverts into forest over time, tree seedlings will spontaneously grow in grassy areas, abandoned pastures, and vacant lots – if we let them. So, reforesting would save money while capturing CO2 emissions. 

Susan Cook-Patton, Ph.D., senior forest restoration scientist at The Nature Conservancy, tells a revealing story. 

“Ten years ago, I worked with over 100 … volunteers to plant more than 20,000 trees along Chesapeake Bay,” she said. “And we found that the ones that grew best were mostly trees we didn’t plant. Instead, it was the trees that grew naturally from seeds or roots already in the ground. … It was a good and humbling reminder that nature knows what it is doing.” 

Natural reforestation has generally been overlooked in New England-based climate mitigation literature because there is a perception that the opportunity is small and therefore the carbon benefits insignificant. The primary focus has been on better management of existing forests (which, of course, is very important too). Yet right now, almost 4 million acres of land are available for reforestation in New England (Fig. 2) – nearly 10% of the region’s land area. Importantly, this acreage does not include active cropland needed for food production. 

The largest opportunities for reforestation are in urban open space and in pasture, with the former more prominent in southern New England and the latter more prominent in Vermont and Maine (Fig. 2). In addition to carbon benefits, reforesting urban areas promotes tree cover that eventually cools neighborhoods, reduces the cost and emissions of air-conditioning, reduces air pollution and associated human health problems, and provides additional green spaces for many residents. 

What is the potential carbon storage benefit from reforestation in New England? Reforesting even 20% of the available acreage in the region – which would leave many public recreational areas and pasturelands open, along with grassy habitat areas – would sequester ~80 million additional tons of CO2e in the next 30 years. This carbon benefit is equivalent to removing 574,000 cars from the road each year for 30 years. Compared to better known natural climate solutions in New England, natural reforestation stacks up well (Fig. 3).

In addition to the carbon benefits of natural reforestation, there are also significant habitat benefits to this strategy. Reforestation provides 15 to 20 years of habitat for species that specialize in young, shrubby forests. In contrast, the common practice of cutting mature forests to create young forest habitats results in a steep loss of carbon. Natural reforestation is therefore a win-win for both climate mitigation and biodiversity. 

In short, natural reforestation, though often overlooked, is a cost-effective way to allow our lands to sequester more carbon and to help mitigate climate change, while promoting habitat for many species, including humans.

Figure 1. Carbon accumulation (not including soil carbon) per acre of land in non-forest (time 0) compared to re-growing forest over a 30-year time period. Data reflect a beech-maple forest in the Northeastern U.S.

Figure 2. Reforestation opportunities by state and land cover type across New England. Southern New England = Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined. Data from Reforestation Hub

Figure 3. Carbon mitigation benefits over 30 years for natural reforestation and four other natural climate solutions in New England, each graphed at 20% of their total opportunity for the region. Reforestation data from the Reforestation Hub. Data on the other four NCS from New England’s Climate Imperative.

Category: Perspectives

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$6M+ Awarded for Conservation Project to Protect Important Northeast Uplands and Lowlands

Established in 2014, the Berkshire-Taconic Regional Conservation Partnership (BTRCP) was formed to secure grants to conserve and protect the natural and scenic landscapes throughout Eastern New York, Southwest Vermont, and the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts and Northwestern Connecticut. Made up of 17 nonprofit and private conservation groups and public agencies, the RCP has collaboratively accessed $6.2M in federal funding to protect and steward critically important lands in the region.

The Uplands to Lowlands Climate-Resilient Cores and Connectors project map.

At the 2019 RCP Network Gathering in Amherst, Massachusetts, the Berkshire-Taconic RCP learned of an opportunity to apply for a major award from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). Bill Labich, senior conservationist at Highstead, had a goal of applying for an RCPP award, as he saw the potential synergies and connections that could be made from several RCPs working together. During a fortuitous elevator ride with Jim Bonesteel, executive director of the Rensselaer Plateau Alliance (RPA), a partner organization within the Berkshire-Taconic RCP, Bill pitched the idea to Jim, as he thought the RPA would be up to the task of taking the lead on such a large project. Jim recognized how great of an opportunity it was and envisioned a collaborative and creative path for the award, he said. The RCPP grant program would allow them to bring together the expertise of farmers, ranchers, landowners, conservation and farm organizations, and state and local agencies to conserve water, farmland, wildlife habitat, soil, and other natural resources. Alana Gerus, conservation project manager at Rensselaer Plateau Alliance, embraced the project’s purpose. “It really felt like a new and ambitious adventure for RPA,” she said. “We had a desire to bring together RCPs that shared not only a common geographic region but also a common goal.” After getting the green light from RPA’s board, Jim and the RPA team began collaborating with land trusts from three RCPs: Berkshire-Taconic, Hudson to Housatonic (H2H), and Litchfield Hills Greenprint Collaborative (LHGC). With natural resource protection, climate resilience, and protecting human and wildlife communities at the forefront of their efforts, the working group of RCPs began asking questions like: How can we purposefully bring together RCPs in the region to conserve the land we share? How can we support landowners, farmers, and ranchers working to conserve water, soil, and wildlife habitat while empowering them to do so in a way that increases climate resilience? After a few months of discussions and deliberation, the Uplands to Lowlands Climate-Resilient Cores and Connectors Project (Uplands to Lowlands) was born.

As noted in the project proposal, the 4,046,000 acres of forest corridor covered by Uplands to Lowlands are among the most important remaining north-south linkages in the Northeastern U.S. As the most intact, connected forests linking southern states to New England and New York, its southernmost extent covers the coastal plain of southern Connecticut and southeastern New York and continues north to the Hudson Highlands of New York and Litchfield Hills in Northwest Connecticut, through the Taconics in eastern New York and western Massachusetts and up through the Berkshires to southwestern Vermont. The mountainous corridor connects the mid-Atlantic states to northern New York and New England. Being one of the most densely populated regions in the U.S., the RCPs recognized the urgency to mitigate habitat fragmentation, watershed impairment, and groundwater contamination through the Uplands to Lowlands. With the help of conservation easements, the initiative’s partners propose protecting forested uplands and farmlands from development to mitigate further climate impact. Throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, the initiative  will use riparian buffer restoration, pollinator pathways, and other land management projects to help conserve and protect the region’s biodiversity; the project also aims to improve forest connectivity, sequester carbon, and support the goals of “30×30.” As a result of its collaborative work and compelling nature, Uplands to Lowlands was awarded the $6.2 million RCPP grant in 2021. As one of the first Regional Conservation Partnership Programs conducted in the state of New York, this was a big win for RPA, BTRCP, and the RCP Network. Through Uplands to Lowlands, 10 Northeast land trusts within BTRCP, H2H, and LHGC will have access to $6,239,091 for five years, through 2026.

The project is expected to create new opportunities for community members interested in land conservation, especially for forests, said Arianna Ferrario, Stewardship & Regional Partnership coordinator for Columbia Land Conservancy, host organization for BTRPC. “I’ve seen a lot of funding for farmland programs and farmland protection but not a lot for forest land protection. This is a new thing that will be really good for protecting forest land as well,” she said. The partners are in the early stages of using RCPP funds to purchase conservation easements for several properties within the Uplands to Lowlands project area.

When asked about what advice she would give to RCPs wanting to apply for RCPP grants or other grants that involve a lot of collaboration, Gerus spoke to the importance of teamwork and dedication. “Organize a group of individuals that are passionate about the work and are willing to put in the time and effort it takes to make the project succeed. RCPP awards take a lot of time and patience, but it really is a great program that allows for collaboration between environmental organizations and land owners on a regional level.”

Through the RCPP, the Natural Resource Conservation Service seeks to co-invest with partners to implement projects demonstrating innovative solutions to conservation challenges and providing measurable improvements. The outcomes should be tied to the resource concerns they seek to address, such as water and wildlife. To learn more about applying for an RCPP grant, visit the NRCS RCPP webpage.

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Article co-authored by Highstead ecologist cited by Intergovernmental Climate Change Panel 


The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report cited a paper co-authored by Highstead Senior Ecologist Ed Faison along with Tufts University Professor Emeritus Bill Moomaw and Trinity College Professor Susan Masino. In the 2019 paper, Moomaw, Masino, and Faison argued that protecting existing forests to grow intact without management was an important and underutilized strategy in the United States for mitigating climate change and helping to combat the biodiversity crisis. The authors coined the term “proforestation” to describe this process of continuous forest growth without management.

The IPCC, which consists of 195 member nations and is the international authority on assessing the science related to climate change, said the following in its report: “It is also the case that protection of existing natural forest ecosystems is the highest priority for reducing GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions (Moomaw et al. 2019).” The report also mentions the complementarity of proforestation with other ‘nature-based solutions’(NbS) when it states: “Protection of existing natural forests and sustainable management of semi-natural forests that continue to provide goods and services are highly effective NbS.” 

Moomaw et al. (2019) drew on decades of peer-reviewed science on the carbon and structural benefits that occur in forests protected from management. For instance, a 1990 study from the Pacific Northwest and a 2010 paper from the Northeastern U.S. revealed that unmanaged forests store substantially more carbon than actively managed forests; this was true even when the carbon extracted from these forests and stored in harvested wood products was included in the calculation. 

In addition to preserving large amounts of carbon, forests left to grow without management develop greater structural complexity over time and when compared to forests that are periodically managed. Complexity is reflected in attributes such as taller and larger diameter trees, large dead trees and downed logs, and a greater variation in tree height and diameter size classes. Structural complexity has been linked to several important ecological functions, including the ability of forests to sequester more carbon dioxide, provide more habitat for biodiversity, and adapt to increased disturbances from climate change.

Besides the IPCC report, a 2021 article in Global Change Biology that noted the importance of protecting existing forests to optimize carbon sequestration and biodiversity preservation cited the Moomaw et al. (2019) paper and included “proforestation” in a glossary of terms. Additionally, a 2022 article in the journal Science suggested, “Guidelines could more effectively promote biodiversity by recommending the use of the natural climate solutions hierarchy that prioritizes protection of intact ecosystems, and approaches that allow ecosystems to reach their full potential with minimal intervention (i.e. through ‘pro-forestation,’ (Moomaw et al. 2019).” 

In short, the international scientific community recognizes that protecting more forests to grow naturally is an essential piece of the solution to mitigating climate change and promoting biodiversity, while complementing other natural or nature-based solutions.

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RCP Partners Engage Volunteers to Restore Urban Tree Canopy, Watershed

Hundreds of volunteers have helped the Norwalk River Watershed Association (NRWA) and several partner organizations plant dozens of native trees, shrubs, and perennials to help restore 10 acres of urban watershed habitat in Norwalk and along the Norwalk River Valley Trail in Wilton. Along the way, they’ve learned about the benefits of plants and improved the quality of life and environment for urban neighborhoods.                    

Volunteers are working to remove invasives at the park and restore the native plantings as shown in the original park design.
Photo Credit: Louise Washer

The NRWA worked with community and corporate volunteer groups to plant 30 native trees, as well as native shrubs and perennials, at each of two Norwalk parks, Woodward Avenue Park and Oyster Shell Park, says Louise Washer, president of the NRWA. A nearly $50,000 National Fish and Wildlife (NFWF) Five Star and Urban Waters Restoration program grant funded those 60 trees, as well as 18 trees that the city of Norwalk crews simultaneously planted along Woodward Avenue.

Volunteers from Melissa & Doug plant native fothergilla along the Norwalk River Valley Trail in Wilton. Photo Credit: Louise Washer

The Hudson to Housatonic (H2H) Regional Conservation Partnership (RCP) put together the collaborative grant proposal to NFWF on behalf of partners. Partners identified the areas of highest conservation value in the region through a strategic planning process several years earlier. They learned they needed to develop a plan that considered the value of conservation activities in human-dominated landscapes, which the former strategic planning was unable to capture. Partners from NRWA and the Norwalk Land Trust (NLT) stepped forward as interested stakeholders in piloting the process for the City of Norwalk.  A year in development, the Norwalk Urban Conservation Mapping tool and guide were born. NRWA and NLT used this tool in applying for the NFWF grant to identify the areas in the city that would most benefit from restoration and tree planting.

“Habitat restoration through invasive plant removal and planting natives is the ultimate goal,” of the grant Washer says, but “you have to sugarcoat it with tree planting.”  Washer made use of corporate team-building volunteer days that fulfilled multiple objectives. With a captive audience of volunteers drawn in by the chance to plant trees, leaders use the opportunity to educate people about invasive identification and removal, and why it matters, while also capitalizing on the free labor. The experience was so successful that RCP partners converted some of those one-day volunteers into regular helpers.

The ‘Weed Warrior’ volunteer team at Oyster Shell Park shows some student interns how to pull out invasive mugwort. Photo Credit: Louise Washer

“We always start these tree plantings with a workshop,” she says. Leaders show participants how to use the iNaturalist Seek app to identify invasives. At one park, a Norwalk Community College student – there because her environmental science professor offers extra credit – walked around the perimeter using the Seek app to identify the plants, and Washer observed the experience appeared to have lit a spark in the student.

One goal of the NFWF grant was to improve the tree canopy in underserved neighborhoods with little tree cover. Using the Urban Mapping tool, project partners identified a street in South Norwalk to focus their efforts. There was no space to plant trees between the sidewalk and the roads, Washer says, so NRWA volunteers, along with a city council member, walked door-to-door to ask property owners to allow the trees to be planted on their property.  The city Public Works Department helped out by having staff dig the holes for the street trees ahead of time.

The grant also helped support ongoing NRWA projects to restore both parks.  Teams of volunteers help with invasive removal, watering, and planting.  At Oyster Shell Park, the volunteers call themselves the Weed Warriors and meet twice weekly all year. The volunteers work in formerly red-lined coastal neighborhoods that now face floods, urban heat island effects, and the most depleted tree canopy in southwest Connecticut. “Trees can go such a long way in providing habitat, cleaning water, and cooling the air,” Washer says.

Volunteers from FactSet drag away a load of mugwort removed from the gardens at Oyster Shell Park.
Photo Credit: Louise Washer

“The grant definitely helped us form lasting relationships with these corporate groups. It was a combination of the end of the pandemic and our having the funding to buy 70 trees that made this all possible,” she says. Since 2017, the NRWA has planted 115 trees and about 400 shrubs combined at Woodward Avenue Park and Oyster Shell Park.

Beginning about five years ago, with a crew of community volunteers, they planted trees on the banks of the Norwalk River in an area formerly overrun by invasive Japanese knotweed, mugwort, and phragmites. Led by a woman who owns a landscaping company, volunteers working Wednesday and Saturday mornings have been chipping away at the invasives in an effort that “completely changed that park,” Washer says. Along the way, the volunteers became a community of people who meet for drinks and to celebrate birthdays.

“It’s making a difference in these two parks that you can see. When you’re there, with the community of people, it gives me the best feeling,” she says.

Volunteers learning how to plant a red cedar at Oyster Shell Park. Photo Credit: Louise Washer

The group included both retired and working people who became devoted in the long-term outcome of the area, she says. By including working people and college students rather than just retirees, the volunteer base was more diverse in terms of age and race than is typical, she says. “They have an investment in the bigger picture there, as opposed to just this one team-building event.”

The active group of volunteers has grown, and the volunteers have become more engaged. While habitat restoration is the primary goal, an added benefit that grows out of the initiative is educating the volunteers, Washer says. They’ve received native plant lists, Pollinator Pathway brochures, and fact sheets about how to bring more butterflies to their yards.

Project partners include the NRWA, Norwalk Land Trust, the City of Norwalk, H2H and Norwalk Pollinator Pathway partners, community volunteers, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, Copps Island Oysters, the Rowayton Library, Norwalk Tree Alliance, and the Norwalk Tree Advisory Committee.

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New England News Outlets Cover Wildlands in New England Report

While 81 percent of New England is covered in forest, only 3.3 percent is permanently preserved as wildlands, according to a new study that’s getting a lot of buzz. The report, Wildlands in New England: Past, Present, and Future, co-authored by Ed Faison, Highstead’s senior ecologist, appeared in a recent op-ed piece in The Hartford Courant. Wildlands are forests, wetlands, and other natural areas permanently protected from development and active management, where natural processes unfold with minimal human interference. They’re crucial to combatting climate change and biodiversity loss. 

The study, the first of its kind in the U.S. to document wildlands history, locations, and levels of protection in one region, has also been featured in Commonwealth Magazine, ecoRI News, New Hampshire Union Leader, and VTDigger.

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New Paper Suggests Wildlands are a Climate-Smart Management Strategy 

In this era of climate change, we often hear two terms related to the management of forests – mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation refers to increasing carbon sequestration in forests in order to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Adaptation refers to managing forests for structural complexity and species diversity in order to increase resistance to or resilience from disturbances (i.e., native and non-native insect outbreaks, fire, drought, and windstorms) that are becoming more frequent and intense with climate change. While the focus has been on promoting active management approaches for meeting these objectives, there are few empirical assessments of the outcome of managing less.

Wilderness area in the Adirondack Forest Preserve (New York)

In a new paper published in Forest Ecology and Management in July, Highstead senior ecologist Ed Faison and collaborators from Harvard Forest examined the mitigation and adaptation qualities of forests protected from cutting and shaped by natural processes (“wildlands”) in the Northeastern United States. Carbon storage was 20% higher in wildlands compared to environmentally similar forests in which harvesting and management were permitted, the authors found. Differences in carbon storage were especially high in the wildlands of New York (+32%) and Maine, (+34%) where the length of time as wildlands was long and where recent harvesting intensity was high in the surrounding unprotected forests.

Interestingly, the rate of carbon uptake did not differ between wildlands and unprotected forests overall; however, it was 37% higher in wildlands than in forests that had been recently harvested within the past 15-20 years. This result differed from the conventional wisdom that forest management increases the rate of carbon absorption in forests. Although recent harvests promoted the growth of individual trees in this study by increasing growing space, harvests reduced carbon absorption in the forest overall because cutting resulted in fewer trees doing the work of photosynthesis.

Structural complexity was also generally higher in wildlands, with numbers of large live and large dead trees, maximum tree height, and variation of tree sizes greater in wildlands than in unprotected forests. The number of tree species did not differ between the two protection categories. Overall, the results suggest the need for forest managers to reexamine the rush to incorporate more management for climate adaptation and mitigation in northern temperate forests not specifically being managed for wood products. Forest managers may consider instead the multiple benefits of stricter protection and allowing natural processes to do more.

Category: Research

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New Paper Suggests Reframing Deer Impacts

Like other natural forest disturbances such as wind, insect outbreaks, and fire, browsing by white-tailed deer has strong and lasting effects on forest ecosystems. Deer browsing, which operates at varying intensities across the landscape, has long been viewed primarily as “damage” to forest ecosystems. But in our rush to label deer as “devastating” and “a bigger threat than climate change” to eastern forests, are we missing the complex and surprising outcomes that deer herbivory generates in our forests?  

In a paper published in Science of the Total Environment in April by Highstead senior ecologist Ed Faison and USDA Forest Service Researcher Brice Hanberry, the authors argue that browsing by a diversity of large mammals shaped eastern North American forests for millions of years and that, as recently as 400 years ago, eastern forests were browsed by three to five large wild mammals compared to only one to two today. Thus, herbivory by deer should be viewed as a fundamental and long-standing ecological interaction rather than an aberration. 

For example, intensive deer browsing can reduce woody plants and the height and abundance of taller wildflower species, while simultaneously increasing the abundance of shorter wildflower species and herbaceous plant diversity overall.  As browsing thins the forest, the forest floor – often deeply shaded under a thick shrub layer without (or with less) browsing – is exposed to more light. Increased light combined with seeds transported by deer can promote new herbaceous plants at the same time that deer are consuming other plants.

Conventional wisdom states that deer destroy native plants and promote invasives, but the reality is more complex. While deer do consume many native plants and increase the abundance of several invasive species such as Japanese barberry, Japanese stiltgrass, and garlic mustard (by clearing space for them and not eating them), deer also reduce the abundance of many other invasives such as oriental bittersweet, multi-flora rose, honeysuckle, and burning bush by consuming them readily. To what extent deer will promote or reduce invasive plants in a particular forest will depend on which plants are available. 

The long-term legacy of deer browsing on tree seedlings and saplings often results in sparse or delayed forest regeneration that may eventually reduce the number and diversity of canopy trees. Yet, paradoxically, delayed tree regeneration can also accelerate the development of structural diversity in young forests by creating canopy gaps and uneven height growth of trees. In other words, plant declines from deer browsing are only part of the story; browsing often has unexpected benefits if we are open to viewing deer-forest interactions more holistically.   

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Massachusetts RCP Project Promotes Habitat for Native Bees

Golden Northern Bumble Bee, Bombus fervidus

To address concerns about declining native bee populations, the Metrowest Conservation Alliance’s Native Pollinator Task Force launched The Bumble Bee Project to promote the conservation of at-risk native bumble bees in central Massachusetts. Based on research by a UMass Dartmouth biology professor, leaders from groups within the Sudbury, Assabet, and Concord Rivers (SuAsCo) watershed began a public education campaign to encourage home gardeners, municipalities, local land trusts, and schools to plant bee-specific native trees, shrubs, and perennials. 

“We’re creating habitat for specific at-risk pollinator species,” says Samantha Corbin, conservation coordinator at Sudbury Valley Trustees (SVT.) The European honeybee colony collapses have been widely reported, but fewer people realize native wildlife relies on native bees and other pollinators, says Laura Mattei, stewardship director at SVT, host, and coordinator for the Metrowest Conservation Alliance (MCA,) a Regional Conservation Partnership which serves the 36 communities within the SuAsCo watershed.

From early spring to late fall, native bees need nectar and pollen, but the threatened bees are plant-host specific so not all native plants will do. Based on five years of study, UMass Biology Professor Robert Gegear created a plant list identifying which plants provide nectar for fuel and pollen for reproduction for each of the three species he has identified as ‘at risk’ bees because their populations are declining: Bombus fervidus, Bombus vagans, and Bombus terricola. Only the b. terricola, (yellow-banded bumble bee,) is classified as threatened by the state of Massachusetts. 

Yellow-banded bumble bee, Bombus terricola. Photo Credit: Bernie Paquette

Gegear identified the at-risk bees when he looked at some data from 2010 and 2019 and noticed some had declined and some increased.  A few species had declined significantly. 

Beginning in 2018, SVT and its partners agreed they wanted to do something to help the pollinators, Mattei says. Someone within the group had heard of Gegear’s research and his push for planting native plants to provide food and shelter for at-risk bees.  “The plants need those pollinators, and the pollinators need those plants to survive. They’ve evolved together over hundreds of thousands of years. It’s that system we’re focusing on,” Mattei says.

“The bees are our ambassadors. You plant the plants; these bees show up.” – Samantha Corbin, conservation coordinator at Sudbury Valley Trustees

Though targeting a few species of bees, this project will also help birds and other pollinators:  native bees, butterflies, moths, birds, and wasps, Corbin says. “I see The Bumble Bee Project as a piece of the broader pollinator picture,” she adds. When people feel discouraged and hopeless about climate change, she says, planting for pollinators is the conservation antidote to despair. “This is something we can and are doing, and it’s growing over time.” 

Half-black bumble bee, Bombus vagans. Photo Credit: David McCorquodale

They’ve faced some challenges relating to how homeowners have been programmed to garden. To counteract the ‘perfect lawn, perfect garden’ mindset, they’ve educated people about the importance of a year-round habitat for bees, which means leaving the leaves and the seedheads and flower stalks in the garden, Corbin says. Some bees overwinter inside the hollow stems and stalks. People can create defined garden beds with clear lines separating them from the lawn and still have an attractive garden, she says.

To spread the word, Corbin has been providing pollinator presentations to garden clubs. Participants in The Bumble Bee Project host site visits so people can see the plan in action.

“The bees are our ambassadors. You plant the plants; these bees show up,” Corbin says. “People really get inspired when they see it work.”

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