Connecticut forests hit by economic crisis

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Photo by Juliana Hanle.

A couple of years ago, Hamden resident Walt Harris watched developers buy forest land from his cousins that had belonged to his family for generations. While Harris and his sister have managed to preserve their more than 25 acres of woods located across from Hamden’s Sleeping Giant State Park, he said their property represents the last pocket of privately held forest in the area.

Across Connecticut in the last decade, hundreds of landowners have sold their forests to developers, pressured by growing economic concerns that have only increased in the past few years, said Mary Tyrrell, executive director of the Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The property sales are nibbling across the forests of Connecticut, a state which lost 185 square miles of forest to development between 1985 and 2006, according to a study by University of Connecticut’s Center for Land Use Education and Research. Tyrrell is conducting a study that investigates the social circumstances that make these property transfers necessary and said she hopes to identify ways to work with land owners such as Harris to save the forest from thinning even more.

Harris’s circumstances are common, Tyrrell and her research collaborator, Brett Butler, a research forester the USDA Forest Service, agreed. When one person owns a neighborhood’s last 20 acres of woodlands, Butler said, the lure of large checks offered by developers outweighs the pleasure of the land itself.

“Everybody has certain needs in this life, and money talks,” Harris said. But the proper functioning of ecosystems requires forest land.

Tyrrell said that nationwide Americans sell about a million acres a year of private lands to developers.

Tyrrell and Butler are currently drafting questions for the first statewide, comprehensive study of forest owners. They said they hope to pinpoint specific state-level programs which would provide forest owners with informational aid and education to maintain their woods.

Various programs providing free forester consultation already exist but Tyrrell and the Connecticut Department for Environmental Protection, to whom she will provide the study’s results, want to know what they can do to improve the infrastructure so that people like Harris can continue to keep their family lands.

THE ROOTS OF THE PROBLEM

Rampant suburbanization has caused Connecticut’s property values to increase so many small landholders can no longer afford to hold onto tracts of forest land, Tyrrell said. If they do not sell the land itself, they might sell their wood to loggers, Richard Campbell, Yale Forest Manager, said, adding that he has noted more and more sales of woodlands around Yale’s own forest in Northwest Connecticut.

“Every time you go up [to the Yale-Myers Forest] you see another sign,” Campbell said.

These transfers of property fragment the woodlands, Tyrrell said — the national average size of a privately-held forest is down to 33 acres from 43 acres in the ’70s.

Scientists like Tyrrell track these changes over centuries, Campbell said.

While forests grow and shrink along a scale of decades, the next few years will be important for forest conservation in Connecticut for several reasons, said Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association.

“It’s a critical time to understand what really does reach these landowners, to assure the conservation outcome,” he said. Tyrrell’s study will be Connecticut’s first of this size. Additionally, 10-mile law, the first forest conservation law in Connecticut, is up for review this month for its 100th anniversary, Hammerling said.

Forest conservation is both a national and regional concern, Tyrrell said. In Connecticut, woodlands provide clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat, and hundreds of miles of hiking trails. Through the blue-blaze program of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, over 900 miles of trails on private property are maintained and open to the public for recreational pleasure.

The impact of deforestation on human habitats makes the issue of these sales worth studying, Tyrrell said.

The first phase of the statewide research asked for personal reflections from forest landowners, Tyrrell said. About 60 people participated from three different rural regions of Connecticut and there are currently 13,000 forest landowners in Connecticut, Tyrrell said.

SELLING HOME

Most landowners, like Harris, want to keep their forests according to the study’s results but concerns about money and maintenance make retaining them difficult.

Many of these properties have remained in families for generations so when they are passed on, the heirs must divide plots into smaller tracts to accommodate siblings and cousins. As the older generation of landowners age, it becomes difficult for them to keep trails clear and free of invasive species. Some of them said their children are just not interested, Tyrrell said.

Harris said his cousins sold their family land due to financial concerns rather than lack of interest, but Tyrrell said there are always pressures to develop plots like these.

“In Hamden we have the pressure of Q-Pac [University] always needing more housing, more everything,” Tyrrell said.

In areas like the towns that surround New Haven, where everybody owns a small parcel of land, Campbell said, per-acre costs have climbed too high and owners fail to properly manage their lands or succumb to offers from loggers to purchase their wood. But Harris said he was able to have a state forester evaluate the health of his woods free of charge which taught him how to monitor the land himself.

While scrupulous logging keeps a forest healthy, Campbell said, loggers need to take out trees like surgeons, carefully selecting every single one at the direction of a knowledgeable forester — many commercial ventures, however, clear cut for fast cash.

THE LAW OF THE LAND

Landowners do not stand alone in the fight against deforestation. They do receive some state support, and non-profits like the Connecticut State and Forest Association educate landowners about their options.

Connecticut legislation provides some tax breaks to forest land owners like the 490 law, which lowers taxes on forest land of at least 25 acres, and the 10 Mill law, which lowers taxes on land designated as woodland for at least a century. Tyrrell and Butler said they want to investigate how these laws can be improved to maximize their positive impact. Landowners, Tyrrell said, prefer these tax breaks to selling conservation easements, which forces owners to rescind their rights to develop the property thus debasing its resale value.

Of the 60 study participants interviewed, only two or three participants said they had sold easements. For farmers whose livelihoods come from their land, such a decision can limit their future options, Tyrrell said.

“If they can’t make some kind of reasonable living farming, then their whole property is at risk,” she said. “They want it to stay the way it is, but life happens.”

Butler added that sometimes the owners simply do not know what to do. Butler and Tyrrell said they hope the survey will help identify ways to better educate these landowners.

Harris’ land in Hamden is listed under the 490 law and has been for decades. Fortunately, he said, Harris and his sister agree that their land is special and must remain untouched. Because of the surrounding development, deer flock to shelter at Harris’ stoop. He said he sees dozens of them on a daily basis, drinking from an old mill pond and bedding down across the driveway.

“The deer are looking for anything to eat these days so they are doing a number on my Juniper plant,” Harris said.

Less forest means reduced habitat for the deer but the loss of forests also means less clean air and water for humans, Tyrrell said, a problem for which her survey hopes to explore solutions.

Tyrrell’s survey will be administered by the US Forest Service.

Correction: February 18, 2011

An earlier version of this article contained several errors. Due to a spelling error, Connecticut’s “10 Mill” law was misspelled. In addition, the article misnamed the Connecticut Forest and Park Association. Finally, Mary Tyrrell was misquoted as saying that farmers do not purchase easements because it may be financially dangerous when, in fact, she said that they do not purchase them because they may not want to limit their future options.

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