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Mass. Gains Ground In Conservation

Every five years, since 1987, the Massachusetts Audubon Society has surveyed the spread and impact of development in Massachusetts.

Its latest report, out Monday, covers the years 1999 through 2005, and it leads with a surprising finding: For the first time, land conservation is outpacing urban sprawl.

Mass. Audubon Director of Public Policy Jack Clarke explains.

Jack, your report on land use in Massachusetts is called “Losing Ground,” but the key finding this year is that the state appears to be gaining ground in terms of land conservation. What do you mean by that? What’s changed?

JACK CLARKE: Well, what’s changed is that we’ve got — for the first time in decades, Bob — we’ve got some good news. And that is that, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we’re saving twice as much land as we’re developing. And that’s thanks to the collaborative work of state environmental agencies and conservation organizations.

Do the numbers for us. How much land do we have; how much have we preserved?

CLARKE: Roughly speaking, there’s five million acres in Massachusetts. One million has been protected, one million has been developed and the rest is up for grabs. And it’s up to us as a Commonwealth to be more strategic in how we develop land and how we save land.

Define land conservation. What land and how’s it been placed in conservation?

CLARKE: Generally, people refer to it as open space. But it’s lands that are important as working landscapes for the Commonwealth. Forests and farmlands. It’s land that’s important for protection of plants and animals and their natural functioning. And also, a very important piece is, protecting land for drinking-water supplies.

And these kinds of lands are either purchased by the Commonwealth or conservation organizations or municipalities and put aside for a variety of purposes.

So it could be new land added to state forests, new land added around reservoirs or around watersheds or new land somehow preserved by local cities and towns.

CLARKE: Exactly. And I think — after the building boom of the 1980s and the fact that Mass. Audubon’s last issue of “Losing Ground” five years ago showed that we were gobbling up 40 acres a day of open space raised a red warning flag to the legislator, state agencies, conservation organizations and cities and towns — that it was time to try and keep pace with how land is developed so we have a balanced approach to providing housing and at the same time providing a quality of life that includes important pieces of land in the Commonwealth.

I’m wondering about geography. Are we doing a better job at preserving land in eastern Mass. as opposed to central or western Mass., or is it the other way around?

CLARKE: What we’ve seen is that, although development has slowed down and open-space protection and conservation has increased, to sprawl frontier, these areas of western Mass. and Worcester County, continue to be hotbeds of development and they’re growing and expanding.

The other thing we’re doing is we’re raising another red flag out in the Quabbin and Connecticut River areas of western Massachusetts and the Berkshires. We’re seeing an increased amount of activity in every single town in those areas. They’re also zoned for two-acre zoning — large-lot zoning — that will result in suburban sprawl in an otherwise rural part of the Commonwealth.

Where are the chief areas of opportunity right now, in the state, where you’d like to see more land preserved — where there are opportunities to preserve more land?

CLARKE: We see that there are large blocks of forest and farmland that need protection, and also areas for protecting drinking-water supplies, in southeastern Massachusetts and especially around the Quabbin Reservoir.

We’ve done a very good job in protecting water supplies there, but not the forest and farmlands — we can do better. And in the Connecticut River Valley.

Looking ahead, what do you see happening to land conservation in Massachusetts, given the recent slump in the residential and commercial real-estate markets? Will that ease pressure on land development?

CLARKE: I think the recent slump in housing development in Massachusetts will ease the pressure a bit, but it also provides an important opportunity for us as a Commonwealth to step back and look at how we’ve developed land and how we’ve saved land, and to be more strategic in how we do that in the future.

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