Monday, November 30, 2009

Distributed Urban Agroforestry

Some 65% of New York’s Hudson River Valley and Catskill Mountain region are forested, with 85% of this forestland owned by private individuals, according to Cornell Cooperative Extension. These privately owned woodlands, if sustainably managed, provide critical ecosystem services, yet few property owners are aware of how to manage their land sustainably. Faced with financial obligations and property taxes, many harvest timber unsustainably or sell their property piece by piece for home construction. Typical forest management plans prepared by private foresters or the DEC focus on cutting and selling timber, even though surveys show that most forest landowners have much more diverse reasons for buying and keeping their wooded property.

One strategy for preventing the open space in our region from being parcelized and developed, particularly the ecologically sensitive forested land in NYC's watershed, is to offer landowners financially viable options for keeping their property intact. These options include enhancing recreational opportunities (e.g., stocking ponds for fishing, cutting trails for hiking or skiing, and managing the woods to support wildlife), and sustainable timber harvesting. Another viable though less common option is agroforestry, the practice of growing ginseng, mushrooms, or medicinal crops in the woods, raising livestock among the trees, or tapping maple trees for syrup.

Legislation introduced by NYS Senator Charles Schumer and Congressman John McHugh would encourage private landowners to open up their properties for maple syrup tapping by providing grants to encourage them to provide access to maple producers. Called the “Maple Tapping Access Program Act of 2009,” the legislation aims to unleash the productive capacity of private woodlands, stimulating distributed agroforestry across regions that have abundant sugar maples. The potential is huge. Throughout New York State, for example, there are an estimated 300 million maple trees that can be tapped for their syrup, some 29 million in New York’s Hudson Valley alone.

The revenue from small-scale, disbursed maple syrup tapping may not be substantial for any single property owner, but it could help to pay the taxes on land that would otherwise be a financial burden, enabling the owner to keep his or her land intact. And for regions with abundant maple trees, the encouragement of distributed maple syrup production would be an economic boon. If successful, the model of distributed agroforestry – using many privately owned wooded properties to produce food and other agricultural products – can be a solution to the parcel by parcel destruction of our privately owned forest land.