Forests are the defining feature of New England’s landscape and their benefits to people and wildlife are unmistakable. Forests provide critical wildlife habitat; water filtration; flood and erosion control; public health benefits like reductions in respiratory illness, asthma, and hospitalization; recreational opportunities, and carbon sequestration.
Mass Audubon protects 25,000 acres of forests and is actively working to ensure this land continues to provide these benefits and remains resilient in the face of threats like climate change.
Challenges Facing Forests
The forests of Massachusetts face several challenges that threaten their ecological integrity and the natural benefits they provide. In addition to fragmentation, invasive plants, insect pests, disease, and overabundant deer, the two biggest threats facing our forests today are development and climate change.
Massachusetts has been losing roughly 5,000 acres of forest each year to development. Much of that is conversion for housing and industrial uses; however, we are seeing more and more forests cut down for installation of ground-mounted solar arrays. (Mass Audubon supports adoption of solar energy but is pushing for policies that incentivize rooftop solar rather than ground-mount.)
Native and introduced forest pests, intense wind and ice storms, droughts, and other stresses are exacerbated by climate change. Insect pest populations that are typically reduced in winter are now able to survive and expand year to year. Changing temperature and precipitation patterns are directly affecting forest health.
Types of Forest Management
Massachusetts was once a densely forested landscape where natural processes contributed to a natural diversity of the age, size, and species of trees across the landscape. But by the mid-1800's, about 80% of the Massachusetts landscape was cleared for agriculture. After subsequent rounds of regrowth and logging, most of our forests are now considered “middle-aged." This means our forests lack age class diversity, with few young forests (0-20 years) or old growth forests (200+ years).
Middle-aged forests often have a less complex structure than once common old growth forests, lack tree species diversity, and provide poorer habitat for some species. Forest habitat management actions can be used to diversify and build the resilience of these forests, introducing patches of young forest, mimicking the unique features of old growth forest and supporting wildlife species of conservation concern.
Passive Forest Management
A passive approach to forest management lets forests continue to mature. This is the approach that Mass Audubon employs across the majority of our permanently protected forested land.
As forests grow, they remove (aka sequester) carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it within forest biomass and soils, playing an important role in combatting climate change. Over long periods of time, these forests take on old growth characteristics, providing additional benefits for some wildlife species thanks to a complex, multi-layered structure.
Active Forest Management
The thoughtful application of forest management practices can help restore habitat conditions found within young and old growth forests.
Young forests are found in forest openings with very little canopy and are dominated by dense growth of shrubs and sapling trees. This type of habitat used to occur naturally due to large-scale disturbances such as beaver activity and fires, which are now less frequent. Removing older trees from small areas of the forest is an effective way to recreate this type of habitat for wildlife species that depend on young forest habitat, including several bird species that are in decline regionally.
Managing Forests for Birds
The forests of New England are vital for the survival and reproduction of many birds, such as the Chestnut-sided Warbler and Wood Thrush. Yet numerous forest birds have undergone a drastic decline in numbers, particularly those that require specialized habitat such as young forest. These declines can be attributed in part to the current habitat conditions found in our forests.
Carefully planned and sustainable forestry practices can create young forest habitat and enhance the structure within our maturing forests. And since about 75% or our forests are privately owned, empowering landowners to manage for birds is critical.
Foresters for the Birds, a partnership between Mass Audubon, Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the Mass Woodlands Institute, trains foresters to assess the existing bird habitat in a forest, make recommendations for improvement, and plan out bird-friendly management strategies.
Managing Forests for Climate Change
Forests in Massachusetts are already affected by climate change—more extreme weather events damage trees, and the warmer climate makes forests vulnerable to invasive pests like the spongy moth. While these and other stressors make it difficult for some tree species to survive, we can act to manage forests specifically with climate in mind.
Climate-smart forestry helps forests adapt to changing climate conditions, removes carbon dioxide from the air, and stores carbon in the forest to mitigate climate change. Some practices, like removing invasive plants and planting climate-adapted trees, build the resilience of the future forest to climate change's threats. Other practices protect and grow the carbon already in the forest, like by creating no-harvest reserves or limiting intense harvests.
Climate-Smart Forestry in Action
At Elm Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Brookfield and North Brookfield, we're fulfilling the "working landscape" terms of an Agricultural Preservation Restriction by harvesting trees with wildlife habitat in mind. Amidst hayfields managed for grassland birds, we've harvested patches of forest that divide up the fields, creating one large, contiguous opening that combines grassland for Bobolinks and Savannah Sparrows with young forest habitat for birds like American Woodcock, Eastern Towhee, and Chestnut-sided Warbler.
At Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton and Northampton, we're replanting a floodplain forest, which helps control erosion and flooding, and we're also introducing southerly-adapted trees that will thrive as other (northern) species lose ground.
Mass Audubon also implements controlled hunts during hunting season at specific wildlife sanctuaries where deer populations have grown to unsustainable numbers and municipal regulations permit hunting. Reducing deer browse helps to promote natural forest regeneration and ensure there will be a future forest.
Climate-smart Forestry Resources for Landowners and Municipalities
Mass Audubon is laying the groundwork for conservation organizations and government agencies to help us meet our stewardship goals and promote Climate Smart Forestry for all forest landowners.