Is open space in danger?

Mass Audubon knows how to grab your attention. In a recent fundraising letter, the state’s largest conservation group says the state is losing more than 8,000 acres of open space every year, as bulldozers turn meadows into parking lots, forests are cleared, and ponds filled in.

“Maybe there are places left in the world that can sustain – at least for a little while – the loss of open space at this alarming rate, but the Commonwealth is not one of them. Far too little of our forests, fields, and farmlands remain,” says the letter from Mass Audubon President Laura Johnson.

But the situation isn’t nearly as dire as Johnson makes out in her fundraising pitch. Indeed, Mass Audubon’s own research shows that the amount of open space being lost to development has been cut in half in recent years, and has likely dropped even further with the economy in the doldrums. The state is also preserving twice as much open space as it loses to development each year.

State officials say the preservation of open space is one of the untold success stories of Gov. Deval Patrick’s term in office. The governor has spent $50 million a year to preserve land in its undeveloped state, to the point where the total amount of land under permanent protection across Massachusetts is now greater than the total area of developed land.

“That is a significant achievement, one many years (and many land conservation deals) in the making,” says Robert Keough, a spokesman for the state’s Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, in an email. “Under Gov. Patrick’s initiative, the Commonwealth is aggressively protecting as much of the high-ecological value undeveloped land as we can, along with keeping as much rural working landscape (farmland and forest) as possible in its current uses.”

Mass Audubon’s fundraising letter engages in a bit of hyperbole, but Jack Clarke, the organization’s director of public policy and government relations, says nothing in the letter is inaccurate. He said tremendous progress has been made in curbing development and promoting land conservation, but a lot of work remains to be done.

According to Mass Audubon research released last year, the state was losing 40 acres a day to development from 1995 to 2000. But from 2000 to 2005, open space losses dropped to 22 acres a day, a total of 40,000 acres over the entire five-year period. Of the 40,000 acres lost to development, approximately 30,000 acres were forest land and 10,000 acres were agricultural land.

The prime culprit in the loss of open space was construction of residential housing, which accounted for 87 percent of land use change, according to the research. Much of the housing was built in what Mass Audubon calls the “sprawl frontiers” of eastern Worcester county and southeastern Massachusetts, as well as a new “sprawl danger zone” near the Quabbin Reservoir.

The good news is that, from 2000 to 2005, the state and private groups like Mass Audubon brought 109,836 acres of land under protection, the equivalent of about 2.2 percent of the state’s total land area. Subsequent investments in land conservation by the state have helped preserve twice as much land each year as is being lost to development.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“We’ve reversed the trend in land development and land protection,” Clarke says.

Not exactly the message conveyed by Mass Audubon’s fundraising pitch, but good news often doesn’t open people’s wallets.