heila Bourque remembers well exactly when it all started.
It was about five years ago. She had climbed Hacker’s Hill
in the Maine town of Casco and arrived at the top to find
a celebration in progress.
Curious, she wandered over to find out what the party was
about. From Carrie Walia, who was then executive director of
the Loon Echo Land Trust, Bourque learned that the festivities
marked the closure of a deal to protect the hill from development.
The organization had another campaign coming up – to conserve
a property in Raymond.
“I said, ‘Well, I live in Raymond,’” remembers Bourque. She
indicated she might be interested in getting involved.
The next spring, Bourque got a call and subsequently threw
herself, body and soul, into a campaign to raise $680,000 to
protect 325 acres in her town. She asked potential donors for
money; she spoke before groups; she talked up the project
to anyone who would listen. None of which this retired IT
professional and former Illinois state worker thought she could
ever do, but once she started, she “found it very empowering.
I can’t even describe what it feels like.”
Half a decade after that chance meeting on a hilltop, Bourque
had her own reason to celebrate: the Raymond Community
Forest was a reality.
The Common Good
The Raymond Forest is one of the newest community forests
in New England, but it won’t be the last. In recent years, the
creation of community forests has increased as towns look for ne w
alternatives to conserve forestland. Since 2000, 40 community
forests have been created in New England, permanently
conserving more than 103,000 acres. These forests range in
size from 65 to 33,000 acres and are represented in every New
England state but Rhode Island.
Modern community forests are based on the idea of town
forests, a tradition that has its roots in colonial times, as well
as the concept of “commons.” Boston Common, for instance,
was public grazing land back in the day. Newly organized New
England towns often set aside acreage for the common good
– for schools, churches, cemeteries, colleges and universities,
poor farms, and public lands including forestland.
While towns in New England had owned forestland since
settlement times, it was in the late 1800s and early 1900s that
the concept of town forests really took off. Interest in scientific
forestry in the U.S. was blooming at this time, and advocates
promoted legislation to encourage towns to establish town-owned
forests and ensure that state resources, including the help of state
foresters, were available to help them manage those assets.
Over the next century, the ethic behind management of town
forests changed from an emphasis on utility to a more mixed-
use and recreation-heavy mandate, but the movement continues
to grow. Today, for instance, some 170 municipalities in Maine
own about 150,000 acres of town forest. These include the biggest
cities – Portland, Bangor, and Lewiston – and smaller towns like
Bath and China. In Vermont, one inventory estimates that town
forests cover 120,000 acres. The terms “community forest” and
“town forest” are often used interchangeably, but there are subtle
and crucial differences.
Key to the definition of a community forest is protection, said Jennifer Melville of the Open Space Institute, a
national conservation organization that works with towns and
community organizations interested in creating community
forests. Towns may own “town forest” lands, perhaps acquired
for back taxes, but if there’s nothing to prevent the towns’ select-boards from selling them or offering them for development,
they’re not really community forests. When a town forest gets
official status and protection, perhaps through a vote at a
town meeting or a conservation easement, that’s when it truly
becomes a community forest, she said.
Of course, not all community forests are town owned. The
Community Forest Collaborative, a partnership of the Trust for
Public Land and the Open Space Institute, describes community
forests as “tracts of forestland that are owned by local
governments, tribal councils or other entities (community-based
not-for-profits) on behalf of communities. They are created and
managed through participatory and collaborative processes,
provide multiple benefits and value to the communities, and
In the hierarchy of conservation ownerships – national
forests, national parks, state parks and preserves, and so on
– community forests are about as local as it gets. Local public
values drive the management of these properties and vary from
project to project – wildlife habitat, conservation, recreation,
watershed protection, and sustainable forestry are just a few.
Many community forests promote several of these uses.
While New England can be said to be a leader in community
forest creation in the U.S., the concept is being implemented
worldwide. There are forests owned and managed by local
people from Ecuador to Nepal, Canada to Niger, England to
South Korea. The World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates
that there are almost 1. 3 billion acres of community forests
worldwide, though in many developing countries, rural or
indigenous peoples’ rights and titles to the land are legally
murky. WRI said that these community forests could combat
climate change and reduce poverty.
“Definitely, there is renewed interest in the concept, not only
in New England, but elsewhere,” said Melville.
Rodger Krussman of the Trust for Public Land agrees. He
calls community forests a “growing movement.” Krussman has
spent 15 years working on land conservation across northern
New England and said, “We spend a lot more time on this now
than we used to, and other organizations are doing so as well.”
A Wealth of Benefits
Laura Stillson marvels at the West Windsor Town Forest in
Vermont. Particularly that, at 1,580 acres, it makes up nearly
a tenth of the town. “That’s a pretty interesting figure,” said
Stillson, who enjoys what the forest has to offer and has worked
to expand it and plan for its future.
A donation of 1,112 acres in the 1970s created the town
forest, but the land was pretty much ignored until an interest