TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Should communities help manage forests’ growth or let them be? The Tompkins County Environmental Management Council is exploring that question as it considers what Tompkins County should do with two county-owned forests in Newfield and Caroline.

On Wednesday, June 12, approximately 30 people, including foresters, private citizens, and public officials, attended a forum at the Tompkins County Public Library about county-owned forests. The meeting was hosted by Brian Eden, chair of the Tompkins County Environmental Management Council, and David Weinstein, associate member of the Unique Natural Areas Committee, a committee of EMC, to field questions from the public about the “very controversial, very difficult subject” of debated county-owned forests.

The forests in question are county-owned properties in Newfield and Caroline, which are 472 and 100 acres, respectively. Tompkins County legislators will decide what to do with the land, which many people at the forum agreed was in poor condition due to its previous use for grazing and farming. The two main options are to leave the land untouched or to more closely manage the forests’ growth.

The forests have grown back considerably since being used for farmland, and the land is close to qualifying as an old-growth forest, Weinstein said. According to a New York legal definition on the books, old-growth forests typically contain trees over 180 years old and cover at least 10 acres, along with other characteristics.

Attendees Wednesday evening had many questions. Here is an overview of some of the key topics.

What is the debate?

The main question is whether the land should be managed or left alone to develop on its own. But the options for management are nuanced because the land can be managed in a variety of ways and with several goals in mind.

Eden and Weinstein provided several management plans that had different values attached to them. Some of the goals are focused on developing old-growth characteristics, maximizing the area for habitat diversity, concentrating on carbon sequestration and managing the forests to be adaptable to climate change.

There is also an option to focus on a combination of these management strategies, Eden said.

“We’re trying to find some mutually satisfying outcome to a very controversial, very difficult subject,” he said.

What is the timeline for the decision?

In December, the Tompkins County Planning, Development, and Environmental Quality Committee put out a logging bid to harvest the forests, as per a 2007 Forest Management Plan. But after the bid received no response, the committee decided to put the issue aside and seek counsel from the EMC.

The EMC will use the public input and scientific research garnered to draft a document that consolidates the information by September. After an editing period when the public can again submit information, the EMC and Tompkins County Legislature will review the document.

The report will be finalized in December for county legislature to use while deciding on the fate of the county forests. This meeting was held to give citizens the opportunity to ask questions and voice concerns about the subject that the EMC may have not considered, Eden said.

After the draft is completed, the public will be able to submit new scientific material to help develop further questions.

Tompkins County Legislator Deborah Dawson said it was important to keep the project goal’s timeframe in mind and to be patient in the process.

“You plant trees for future generations,” she said. “We’re not going to get to where we want to be in our lifetimes.”

What is an old growth forest? And other questions posed by attendees

At the public forum Wednesday, multiple citizens questioned the definition of old-growth forests. Some citizens believed leaving the forest unmanaged would create an old-growth forest, while others believed management was necessary to create the type of forest that existed before people farmed and mismanaged the land. Others believed it was simply not possible to revert the forests back to their original conditions. Before moving forward, people said the characteristics of these forests need to be clarified.

A handful of people asked about how community values will factor into the decision-making process. Some of the values mentioned included education, conservation and outdoor recreation. One attendee brought up the Children of Indiana Nature Park, where every child in Indiana gets a piece of the park to own, as a potential model for outdoor education in the county.

Attendees also wanted to know how climate change could affect the forests. A few people asked how changes to the climate could affect any plans made for the land and if the EMC had considered this detail in planning.

In a similar vein, some voiced concern over invasive species in the area. Species like ash borers, which have wreaked havoc on ash trees in the Tompkins County area and beyond, have the potential to disrupt entire ecosystems in a relatively short period of time. Multiple attendees inquired how this potential threat is being considered in the report.

Eden and Weinstein encouraged those who couldn’t attend the meeting to email them any information or concerns.

Becky Mehorter is an intern at the Ithaca Voice. She is a rising senior at Ithaca College with majors in journalism and Spanish.