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Making Space for Wildlands

Old growth forest

Imagine walking through a dense forest, where tall white pines and broad oak trees reach to the sky. A soft carpet of moss is underfoot, and birds are singing in the tree canopy. An enormous tree trunk, fallen some time ago, creates a maze of branches across your path. In the sunny opening, birch saplings are sprouting, and patches of ostrich ferns spread. Bobcat prints crisscross the muddy edge of a cold stream. Everything about this place tells you it’s wild.

Mature, wild forests like these dominated the New England region for thousands of years. Today, virtually no primeval forests are left. Most of New England’s forested landscape is second growth, having regrown after colonial settlers stripped indigenous land of its native trees and peoples to make way for European-style agriculture and towns. Though forests have regenerated throughout the region, today many are still managed as woodlands for timber products that benefit the local economy and  provide wildlife habitat.

But some woodlands can become wild again—if landowners make the choice to leave the forest alone. By setting aside places where the land can heal, rewilding provides safe homes for wildlife, allows trees and plants to grow and adapt, and ensures nature can exist for its own sake.

A new report from Harvard Forest’s Wildlands, Woodlands, Farmlands & Communities Initiative (WWFC) called Wildlands in New England: Past, Present & Future found that while 81% of New England is forested, only 3.3% has been permanently protected as wildlands. The report defines wildlands as areas of any size that are permanently protected with the intent “to allow natural processes to prevail with ‘free will’ and minimal human interference.”

Choosing to “Rewild” Land in the Valley
With so much forest in our region, the opportunity to conserve more wildlands is clear. The WWFC’s goal is to ensure that at least 10% of all conserved land is protected as forever wild.

The WWFC vision, which Kestrel has endorsed as part of our Strategic Plan, sees wildlands protection as part of an integrated approach to conservation that also includes forests managed for wood products, natural spaces for recreation, and farmlands for local food. Wildlands can exist at any scale, from tens to thousands of acres.

The WWFC’s Wildlands report breaks out the story of wildlands for each New England state. The Massachusetts summary reports that although it is the nation’s third-most densely populated state, Massachusetts is 64% forested and has been a leader in conservation, protecting nearly a third of its lands. Even so, only 2.3% are wildlands. The WWFC’s goal is to triple that number to 7.3%. (View the state-specific reports here.)

Kestrel Land Trust is committed to doing our part to reach that critical goal. In the last five years, we have permanently protected several of tracts of forest that we own as “forever wild,” including the 120-acre Whately Center Woods, 100 acres along the Amethyst and Heatherstone Brooks in the Pelham Hills, and a 350-acre area known as Old Wolf Hill in Williamsburg and Westhampton.

That’s just the beginning. Right now, our conservation team is looking for more opportunities with willing landowners to protect forest and create more wildlands.Wildlands in New England: Past, Present, & Future executive summary cover

Some forest owners will still prefer to manage their land, harvesting timber for financial or ecological goals like creating open patches for wildlife habitat. They can also choose to protect some areas as wildlands and others as woodlands, while a conservation restriction can ensure sustainable forest management. Kestrel provides both wildlands and woodland conservation options to landowners to help meet their goals and to maximize the amount of forest we can protect.

“Striking a balance between the land we don’t actively manage and the land we do actively manage for forest and agricultural products is so important,” said WWFC report co-author Liz Thompson, a Vermont-based ecologist and board member of the Northeast Wilderness Trust (NWT). “We’re not saying it all needs to be Wildland, but the balance is currently off.” (Kestrel’s Executive Director Kristin DeBoer serves on the NWT board.)

Land trusts and landowners can choose to let land become wild. We simply need to make a commitment to allow the land to evolve on its own terms. This wild choice is one simple and hopeful way to support a healthier, more biodiverse, and resilient planet, right here at home.

HELP REWILD OUR FORESTS! You can support our work to create wildlands with Kestrel’s dedicated Monica and Bob Leverett Forever Wild Fund. Every $1,000 raised can protect 1 acre of wild and remote forest! To make a gift, click here, and then select “Forever Wild Fund” from the drop-down menu.

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