Between the Lines: Summary or DCR Spin?

It’s only a summary: that’s the state’s position in a nutshell.

“This summary is not a document that will be utilized to make policy decisions,” writes state Department of Conservation and Recreation Resource Management Planner Jessica A. Rowcroft in a Feb. 24 email to Chris Matera of Massachusetts Forest Watch—an email Matera later forwarded to a wide range of people involved in or following the Patrick administration’s effort to rewrite the rules for managing state public lands.

The document Rowcroft references isn’t exactly top-of-the-news stuff. It is archived deep in the DCR website: As Rowcroft notes in her email, “…the comments themselves are available for public review, organized by type of submission—email or letter—and in the order by which they were received.”

If the summary and the underlying public comments—more than 400 pages of them—represent just a tiny sliver of the bureaucracy surrounding the Patrick administration’s “Forest Futures Visioning” process, they have also come to represent the latest flashpoint between state bureaucrats and increasingly wary forest watchdogs and environmental activists.

To Matera, who has, as much as anyone, helped investigate and expose increased commercial logging taking place in state woodlands under the Patrick administration, the summary is propaganda designed to obscure overwhelming public opposition to the continuation and expansion of logging on state public land. Matera has done what he fears neither state officials nor their “advisory group of stakeholders” are likely to do: read all the comments. Of 172 comments that address forestry issues, Matera says, all but 10 “specifically oppose any kind of commercial logging. Yet the summary states, ‘comments both oppose and support commercial forestry.'”

To Rowcroft’s claim that the summary is “neutral and well-balanced” Matera responds, “If the summary is to have value, it should make a good faith effort to accurately summarize the comments, not neutralize them. This summary seems anything but well balanced, at least from a forestry perspective, which was the controversy that prompted the Forest Futures Visioning process in the first place.”

Matera’s correspondence with Rowcroft triggered a long string of emails from parties on his mailing list. The list includes not only activists and journalists but state officials, including the new Executive Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs and ex-DCR Commissioner Rick Sullivan, a former Westfield mayor. While Sullivan doesn’t weigh in, nearly all the emails affirm Matera’s view of the DCR summary as the capstone of a disingenuous public process manipulated by an administration seeking to exploit state forests to help feed the misguided government-subsidized development of biomass energy plants across the state.

I did what Matera did: I read all the public comments. They reflect, as he says, a strikingly high level of opposition to commercial logging on state land. And it’s more complicated than that: the state’s public comment process attracted input on issues large and small, from proposed new rules for off-road vehicles in state forests to the impact the new forestry policies might have on the Northampton Department of Public Works. Yet as varied as the comments are in terms of subject matter and viewpoint, more than half of them, often quite passionately, oppose commercial logging.

For Matera, who battled DCR to have the actual comments included in the final presentation—DCR spokesperson Wendy Fox told me she believes the agency “always intended to include all the comments”—the summary is only one of many concerns about the transparency and integrity of DCR’s public process. He is also fighting (via list-served emails) with DCR officials over their plans for logging projects and timber contracts on the Ware River Watershed. DCR has requested $1,390.84 to fulfill Matera’s public records request, an amount he calls “completely absurd.”

Meanwhile, Matera, like many Valley residents, looks askance at the Patrick administration’s recent decision not to require an environmental impact report for a proposed wood-burning biomass plant in Springfield.

“I keep hoping that the administration will go beyond the empty gestures of public process,” Matera said, “but it’s pretty clear they plan to plow ahead with business as usual.”

Author: Tom Vannah

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