BOSTON — Opponents of a bill to establish the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership Fund say it is a “classic Trojan horse” to expand biomass energy production in western Massachusetts under the guise of sustainable forestry.
But Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, who proposed the legislation, says wood energy is not a focus of the bill and economic development comes second to forest conservation.
“I can say flatly and honestly that this is a very straightforward utilization of forest resources,” Kulik said. “These charges are completely false and misleading, and are, unfortunately, being spread by a small group who are deliberately mischaracterizing this bill.”
The bill, H.2932, would seed the Mohawk Trail Partnership Fund with $6 million to support and expand sustainable forest management, along with other projects in Berkshire and Franklin counties.
Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, is a co-sponsor.
At a hearing Tuesday before the Legislature’s Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, opponents asked the committee to reject the bill in its entirety, saying the fund would be controlled by a consortium of special interest groups who would advance their own agendas.
“It takes us in the opposite direction from what is needed to pave the way to a clean energy future,” stated a press release from the Concerned Citizens of Franklin County & MTWP Advisory Committee, Restore the North Woods and Mass Forest Rescue Campaign.
The groups said they have several main reasons for opposing the bill:
“Sustainable” forestry is impossible to quantify;
The amount of land placed under conservation is inadequate; and
The bill would help fund a wood pellet manufacturing plant, which would expand biomass energy in the region.
It is this last reason that Beth Adams of the volunteer-formed Mass Forest Rescue Campaign said is especially important. In an interview ahead of the hearing, Adams said the bill claims to promote sustainable forest management, but will actually be a boon for biomass energy.
Biomass energy is derived from organic material, usually wood pellets. A number of homes, hospitals and schools use it as a replacement for petroleum in western Massachusetts, but some still have concerns.
When Sanderson Academy in Ashfield received a state grant in 2016 to move to biomass energy, the Board of Health and the American Lung Association wrote letters in opposition due to a lack of documentation of potential health impacts.
Adams said she is largely concerned about the release of carbon dioxide from logging and the dispersal of particulates into the air during the wood-burning process.
“In a time of a climate emergency, this bill will worsen climate effects. It was not written as a result of public outcry or any kind of grassroots organizing,” she said. “This is all top-down structure.”
The legislation itself does not contain any specific references to wood heat, wood pellets or a proposed pellet manufacturing plant, but as it stands currently, the plan associated with it does.
The bill states that within three years of enactment, the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership will be required to develop a plan, but would in the meantime use the existing Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership 2014-2015 Plan.
Most recently updated in 2016, the plan states that potential benefits include “funding for specific activities such as a feasibility study for a wood pellet manufacturing plant,” along with creation of new hiking trails, assistance with forestry-related business plans and payments to willing landowners for conservation restrictions to permanently protect forests.
When asked about the proposed wood pellet manufacturing plant or expansion of biomass energy, Kulik again emphasized that it is not a focus, though he acknowledged it could be part of a proposal and study down the line.
Kulik said the legislation has the support of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, and a number of other local environmental groups.
“If there was any aspect of this bill that was harmful to the environment, these organizations would not support it,” he said, adding that the legislative process has been open, with numerous community meetings over three years involving citizens, officials and landowners.
“I’m hopeful that it will move forward. I think this bill would do something positive for our region, which often faces economic isolation,” Kulik said. “It’s too bad really. I think if these groups took an honest look at the legislation, they’d see how positive it is.”
M.J. Tidwell reports for the Gazette as part of the Boston University Statehouse Program.