If You Love Our Forests, Let Them Stand
By DON SMITH
December 18 2005
People in Connecticut tend to believe that the land where they live, work and play has lots of trees - always has, as far as they know, and therefore, always will. Not necessarily. Things are changing for the worse and we are in danger of losing large portions of our forests unless we take strong action now.
For more than two centuries after Europeans first arrived in Connecticut, they labored to clear the forest for agriculture. By 1860, more than 70 percent of the state had been cleared and the mighty forest of Connecticut was reduced to a few small patches on soil that was too poor for farming.
By that time, farming began moving west to take advantage of more fertile Midwestern lands. Thousands of acres of Connecticut farmland were abandoned and the forest began to return. To this day, many dedicated people have worked long and hard to help the forces of nature bring the forest back.
Connecticut is now blessed with a forest that contributes immeasurably to our quality of life. Incredible natural beauty, wildlife, clean air, clean water, outdoor recreation, forest products, flood control - so much that is good. Our basically healthy forest covers nearly 60 percent of the state and is nearing maturity. The forest of Connecticut seems to be in the background of nearly every outdoor photograph in the newspaper, on television or in family albums.
But, all is not as it seems.
As Connecticut's state forester, I have soberly reflected upon the state of our forest and the future it faces. Today, I am alarmed - as you should be.
Since 1953, some 114,000 acres of Connecticut's forest have been consumed by residential and commercial development. This loss is alarming, and may be getting worse. The current development trend, if left unchecked, will irreversibly damage the forest and the quality of life in Connecticut.
Increasingly, our citizens and wealthy out-of-state residents who hold some romanticized notion of a Connecticut "wilderness" feel compelled to own a piece of it. They are moving to rural areas and building big houses on large lots. Fed by our uniquely American lifestyle, a quiet yet fundamental change is occurring to the very nature of the forest of Connecticut. It is being fragmented.
Breaking up blocks of forestland and building residential or commercial structures thereon is a cancer that is inexorably destroying the ecological integrity of Connecticut's forest. This human-caused forest fragmentation threatens the health and sustainability of forests. It endangers plant communities, wildlife habitat, wildlife diversity and water quality. It compromises the recreational or timber values of the forest. In fact, fragmentation destroys the very thing that draws humans to live in the forest in the first place - the unbroken forest's inherent, natural beauty. Unless we can find a cure for this cancer, the forest-based amenities that are so important to our quality of life will disappear forever.
People are loving our forest to death. We must learn to "love it and leave it!" We must be content with recreating in the forest in as many sustainable pursuits as may be invented - and then leaving the forest to go home. The drive to own a chunk of our state's precious forested lands must end.
Paradoxically, the key to the future of our forest lies in the quality of life in our cities. If we make our cities and town centers a joy to live in, the demand to carve up the forest will abate. If we love the forest, we must be the strongest of advocates for the renewal of our cities. We must argue for all urban quality-of-life issues - for better services, better public safety, better education, better public transportation and better local recreational facilities.
Americans generally believe that a landowner should have the right to do anything on or to his land, provided his actions don't infringe on others. Americans believe it is a landowner's right to sell all or part of his land if he wants to. Yes, we're all about property rights, and that's fine in most cases. But, have we forgotten that there is a difference between property rights and property responsibilities?
Today, the seductive lure of profit is justification for any action. However, while a landowner may have the legal right to destroy the forest he owns by cutting it up and selling it, piecemeal, every landowner has an ethical responsibility to honor the future. Every landowner has an obligation to be a steward of the land for the future.
As state forester, I have a message for Connecticut's 102,000 forest landowners: Subdivision is wrong. Your responsibilities as a trustee for the future supersede your rights as a landowner.
It may be a crazy message that runs counter to today's materialistic world - but it is the right message. All Connecticut residents need to take this message to heart, because this one issue - the fragmentation of our forest - is fundamental to the survival of the forest and everything that depends on it. Every other issue facing the forest of Connecticut pales in comparison to this one.
What is the state of Connecticut's forest? The real answer lies in the hearts of Connecticut's people, a people blessed by the forest in the background of their lives.
Do they view the forest as a precious heritage entrusted to their stewardship and as a legacy to be passed to the future? Or do they view the forest merely as a commodity to be leveraged and liquidated for financial gain?
Now is the moment for all who care about our forest to demand meaningful controls on urban expansion, practicable land use policies and an economic incentive for landowners to resist the lure of subdivision.
If we fail to find a cure for this cancer that is killing our forest, the forest will be gone - this time forever.
Don Smith, of the state Department of Environmental Protection, is Connecticut's State Forester. This column was developed from an address he delivered at the first Connecticut Forest Forum, which was held November 30 in West Hartford.
Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant