The first-ever inventory of community-owned forests in New Hampshire that was released last week included an interesting number: $146 million.
This was the “economic value” researchers put on the 180,439 acres divided up among 1,691 parcels, each 10 acres or larger, that were tallied in the report, released jointly by UNH Cooperative Extension, Northern Forest Center and New Hampshire Association of Conservation Commissions. Of that, $92 million was from “forest-related industries” like logging and maple sugaring, and $54 million from “recreational uses.”
Those are nice exact numbers, but where do they come from, particularly the latter?
I can see knowing the dollar value of timber sales and wood pulp production and biomass energy, but how do you quantify the dollar value of a section of a hiking trail on a piece of land owned by a town or city or school district, or the value of a parcel that protects a stream feeding into the water supply, or some property that preserves cottontail habitat or a scenic view?
Looking for an answer, I went to an obvious place: A company that assesses property values. Obvious, perhaps, but wrong.
“We are quantifying market value,” he said – that is, how much it might bring on the open market from any buyer. “That really excludes what it might be worth to a town for other benefits.”
So I tried Beth Fenstermacher, the assistant city planner for Concord, who is the tree expert in City Hall.
She had easy access to some very specific figures: money that Concord gets selling trees that are cut from city-owned property, a major component of “economic value” for woodlands.
“In 2018, we had about $30,000 total in timber sales,” she said, including a clearcut of red pine trees that would have died soon because of a disease called needle scale.
“Pretty much, $25,000 to $30,000 is what we end up bringing in on timber sales on one to two properties every year,” she said.
Okay, that’s one number. Beyond that, however, quantifying the value gets much less algorithmic and more judgmental.
“We look at what’s happening across the state – what are other land trusts paying,” said Fenstermacher. And they weigh relative value.
Consider parcels in the watershed of Penacook Lake, the city water supply.
“If something has 1,200 feet of (road) frontage and could support 20 houses in a subdivision, the conservation commission will value it higher, so it doesn’t have 20 houses that will degrade the watershed further,” she said. “If we purchase a landlocked parcel that’s never going to be developed, that’s less valuable” unless it has a secondary purpose, such as connecting two existing parcels to allow through-hiking.
But, she said, there’s no mathematical way to determine value.
Ron Klemarczyk, a consulting forester whose decades of fieldwork makes him familiar to anybody knowledgeable about woodlands in New Hampshire, agreed.
“What’s becoming more and more important is recreation,” said Klemarczyk, who serves on three open-space-related committees in Hopkinton, among his other forestry work. “We have a trail system, most of it’s on protected land. It’s a heavily used recreational asset to the town. It has value – but I’m not quite sure how you put a monetary value on it.”
And Kelmarcyk knows how to value forest land: “Hopkinton did a pair of timber sales in 2017. In one we cut 103,000 board feet – it takes about 25,000 board feet to build a Cape Cod-sized house, so that’s about four houses worth – and the town netted $16,000. … The other timber sale had 174,000 board feet, we netted $24,000.”
So if experienced foresters can’t put a number on the recreational value of land they oversee, where did that $54 million of “recreational uses” for lands scattered all over the state come from?
John Gunn, a research assistant professor of forest management at UNH, based it on a 2013 publication by the Northeast State Foresters Association.
That group looked at sources including the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment from the USDA Forest Service and the 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, plus data such as maple syrup sales and estimated business income due to forest-related tourism like skiing and driving along the Kank.
It concluded that forest recreation in the state had $1.4 billion in annual economic value, about half of it from leaf-peeping (which explains the traffic on I-93 in October). Roughly, Gunn extrapolated that figure down to the 4 percent of state woodlands that are owned by communities.
“It’s obviously a coarse assessment, but I think it helps put the acreage of town forests in perspective,” Gunn wrote in response to an email question.
And that, of course, is the point. It’s unrealistic, perhaps foolish, to expect objective dollar value from aesthetic, public-health and environmental aspects of property.
The report in question was clever to include numbers because nothing focuses our attention like very large sums of money. Had it been more realistic and said something like “community-owned forests bring tens of millions of dollars of direct and indirect benefit to towns plus many benefits that can’t be quantified,” it wouldn’t have received nearly as much attention (including this article).
And to a large extent, the value of the report comes from its inventory of community-owned lands.
“We had studies that documented the value of forestland by acre for various uses,” said Julie Renaud Evans, program director at the Northern Forest Center, “but we didn’t know how many acres that communities owned.”
At town meeting time, when many voters are being asked to spend tax dollars on buying or preserving property, it seems timely to let them know there are 180,000 similar acres out there.