Changes to the Land

How might the New England landscape change in 50 years, and what consequences might follow for people and the environment?

A groundbreaking study released in 2014, led by the Harvard Forest and the Smithsonian Institution, examined four possible scenarios for the future of the Massachusetts landscape depending on land-use decisions we make today. The researchers’ most significant finding indicates that recent forest loss trends, if they continue unabated, will undermine land conservation gains, damage water quality throughout the state, and limit the ability of the landscape to protect against climate change. 

The results of the study are summarized in a new report, Changes to the Land: Four Scenarios for the Future of the Massachusetts Landscape. In the study, Harvard Forest and Smithsonian scientists brought together a diverse group of eight natural resource professionals to develop four plausible land-use futures, and used sophisticated computer models to conduct a 50-year, acre-by-acre analysis of how each alternative would affect the valuable ecosystem benefits currently provided by the Commonwealth’s forested landscape.

The four landscape scenarios developed and analyzed for Massachusetts are Recent Trends, Opportunistic Growth, Regional Self-Reliance, and Forests as Infrastructure. The scenarios reflect different amounts and intensities of land development, timber harvesting, farmland expansion, and forest conservation.

Scenarios are not predictions but they can showcase important ways that our land use decisions today can have tremendous consequences for the world we live in tomorrow.

One central finding of the study is that the Forests as Infrastructure Scenario, which 1) increases the pace of conservation, 2) focuses on far more clustered development, and 3) expands sustainable forestry, ranks the highest overall in terms of protecting the many water, climate, wildlife, flood control, and other benefits provided to people and nature by our forested landscapes. 

As noted by lead author Jonathan Thompson, Senior Ecologist at Harvard Forest, “What we found is that land-use decisions have immediate and dramatic impacts on many of the forest benefits people depend on…The results of the study show that sprawl, coupled with a permanent loss of forest cover in Massachusetts, create an urgent need to address land-use choices.”

Given the major transitions the Commonwealth is facing today—not only in forest cover but also in state leadership and public policy—it is important to consider the policy implications of this study. The Executive Summary includes a short Policy Addendum that highlights key areas where Massachusetts can help conserve nature’s vital benefits through 1) recommitting to land conservation, 2) redoubling land use policy and planning, and 3) promoting sustainable forestry. 

The researchers have received National Science Foundation funding to extend the study throughout the rest of New England over the coming decade.