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WESTBOROUGH

State unveils plan to protect forests, parks

By Rachel Lebeaux
Globe Correspondent / February 4, 2010

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State officials are proposing a reclassification of state-owned forests and parks that could strengthen its commitment to promoting recreational activities and protecting ecological features across the region.

The list of communities where the reclassification could bring greater protection for public lands includes Arlington, Ashland, Belmont, Carlisle, Concord, Framingham, Hopkinton, Lincoln, Natick, Upton, Waltham, and Wellesley, officials and conservationists say.

At a public forum this evening in Westborough, the first of five to be held across the state in the next week, representatives from the Department of Conservation and Recreation will unveil draft recommendations aimed at classifying 308,000 acres under its control into three categories: forest reserves, parklands, and woodlands. Tonight’s session is scheduled to start at 6:30 in the Westborough Public Library, 55 West Main St.

These labels, officials said, should better communicate the state’s oversight plan for its properties, after facing criticism by environmental advocates over what they see as poor management and overcutting of timber in some areas.

The draft recommendations call for keeping larger swaths of land away from commercial timber harvesting by reclassifying them as either forest reserves or parklands. Woodlands would be the only category where tree-cutting would be allowed, with the aim of modeling sustainable cutting practices for private landowners.

“Part of this process had us, as an agency, holding ourselves out to criticism - some of it valid,’’ said the DCR’s commissioner, Rick Sullivan.

Conservationists said the new plans mark an important shift toward better preserving state parks and forests.

“The DCR forest vision draft, if ever adopted, would represent a major improvement in the state’s practices and policies for cutting on forest lands, because it would much more emphasize stewardship, habitat, recreation, and scenic values, with less emphasis on timber cutting,’’ said Gregor McGregor, a member of the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions, which advises local boards in communities around the state.

The draft plan represents “a paradigm shift,’’ he said, in moving land use away from timbering and toward ecosystem values.

Sullivan said that the new classification system “is really going to change how the DCR does business.

“The overriding change that will come here is a significantly increased amount of DCR land will no longer have commercial harvesting going on,’’ he said.

The recommendations, if approved, would effectively redesignate a number of state-owned lands in area communities, including Hopkinton State Park, the Walden Pond State Reservation in Concord and Lincoln, Great Brook Farm State Park in Carlisle, Cochituate State Park in Natick, Callahan State Park in Framingham, Beaver Brook Reservation in Belmont and Waltham, Ashland State Park, Upton State Forest, Elm Bank Reservation in Wellesley, and Alewife Brook Reservation in Arlington, Cambridge, and Somerville.

Forest harvesting has been less of a concern in the more-urban areas of Eastern Massachusetts than in the larger state parks elsewhere in the state, Sullivan said. However, if these recommendations are approved, one of the next steps would be mapping the specific properties, to determine into which category each parcel of DCR property would fall.

Sullivan said many of these local recreation areas and reservations could fall into the “parklands’’ category, where active timber harvesting would not be allowed, and where the dominant objective would be providing opportunities for public access, preservation of ecologically significant features, and promotion of cultural and historical values.

Heidi Ricci, a senior policy analyst for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, said that the dramatic growth in the suburbs west of Boston in recent decades has made it imperative that the state develop clear, forceful plans.

“Many of these properties, when they were initially acquired, were in a much more rural landscape,’’ Ricci said. “There’s been a great deal of development in MetroWest and there’s a much denser population now.’’

By better protecting these public lands, officials can also demonstrate their long-term goals for all forested properties across the state, including those that the DCR does not control, said Lisa Vernegaard, chairwoman of the agency’s Forest Futures Technical Steering Committee, which developed the recommendations in the report.

The process “will require some thoughtful analysis about each park and place,’’ she said.

“The state, unlike private ownership that can turn over, is in this for the long run,’’ said Vernegaard, a Maynard resident. “This enables the DCR to model some best practices for long-term care of forestry and forest management.’’

The draft report also points to continued areas of disagreement, such as the amount of acreage recommended for a space to be designated as a forest reserve. In addition to holding the public forums, the steering committee is seeking continued feedback from residents via e-mail and an online survey.

“I’m particularly listening for what members of the public have to say about those outstanding issues,’’ Vernegaard said.

Details about the state agency’s “Forest Futures Visioning Process’’ are available on its website, www.mass.gov/dcr.