Guest columnist Raymond DiDonato: Eastern Mass. is coming for our forests, fields and farmlands

The Quabbin Reservoir

The Quabbin Reservoir FILE PHOTO

 Brush clearing and burning in Enfield in the spring of 1939, an official photo documenting construction of the Quabbin Reservoir.  The brick building was the Enfield Town Hall.

Brush clearing and burning in Enfield in the spring of 1939, an official photo documenting construction of the Quabbin Reservoir. The brick building was the Enfield Town Hall. FILE PHOTO

By RAYMOND DIDONATO

Published: 07-05-2024 7:39 PM

 

Dana. Enfield. Greenwich. Prescott. To the casual observer visiting the trails of the Quabbin Reservoir from eastern Massachusetts during leaf peeping season, these names represent quaint roads for walking in the woods.

But to most people living in the North Quabbin, old and young alike, these are the names of the four towns flooded and disappeared to make way for a drinking water reservoir serving primarily eastern Massachusetts communities.

The loss was not simply borne by these four towns. As Sen. Jo Comerford recently wrote, the creation of the Quabbin also led to “shuttering businesses, fracturing transportation lines, freezing economies — to create a sustainable and pristine source of drinking water for metro Boston.”

Now a similar threat aims at western Massachusetts, and that is in the form of large-scale clean energy projects poorly sited in forests, fields and farmlands. Except instead of at least yielding a natural resource, as the Quabbin has become, these projects will yield solar panels and batteries that will require disposal in about 20 years, and after which it will take the forests another 30-50 years to recuperate.

John Pepi, a member of the Easthampton mayor’s Energy Advisory Committee, recently wrote in a guest column of those wary of cutting forests for solar and battery storage that “when the rhetoric and the dust settles, after science has weighed in, more often than not the objections of the forest protectors are reducible to: Not in my backyard; personal aesthetic preferences, or fear that change could damage property values,” even though he acknowledged that forests still remain “the only proven technology we have that can sequester carbon inexpensively” [“Not Quabbin-ize, but eyes on the prize,” May 29].

I am sure then that Easthampton must have vacant properties, rundown mills, or brownfields that could house these same facilities that politicians are perfectly happy to put on pristine forest or farmland. If not, is it our fault that these communities have overdeveloped themselves to the point of having nowhere to place their own energy projects?

Don’t get me wrong. The climate crisis is serious, and we need to take quick and decisive action to mitigate the impacts. But what Boston and other urban settings have in common is that their politicians have made promises of continued, unending economic growth, and rather than adjusting to a future economy that does not eat up the 5,000 or so acres of land developed in Massachusetts annually, the idea is to make more dense housing, clear more land for economic development, and to power it?

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Forests. Fields. Farms. It is the sin of endless growth, while hiding the engine of that endless growth — energy — in far-away forests and fields in western Massachusetts, largely unknown places to politicians in Boston, but near and dear to the hearts of the people of the region, important for the ecotourism industry and economic development of our region, and vital to the species that inhabit them.

On a trip to Belgium five years ago, I was struck by how many rooftops had solar installed. When traveling in eastern Massachusetts, I see a dearth of rooftop solar, solar on commercial properties, or solar canopies on parking lots (of which there are oceans in eastern Massachusetts). And according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, “there has been a 64%, 69%, and 82% reduction in the cost of residential, commercial-rooftop, and utility-scale PV systems, respectively” over the past decade.

Residential and commercial solar are simply cheaper to install than they have ever been. Don’t tell me rooftop and commercial solar are too expensive.

And what are the costs of cutting forests and fields for solar and battery storage? Start with the first battery storage development proposed in Wendell, which would not only delete 6.5 acres of forest and directly impact 11.1 acres in total, but would also lead to habitat fragmentation to wildlife in the area, and potentially impact Osgood Brook, which supports a native brook trout population, with warm runoff.

In an age referred to as the Anthropocene by more and more scientists, and where a mass extinction is happening before our eyes, the Healey administration, solar developers, and others shrug and say, cut it down, we need to grow the economy, it’ll grow back.

This sort of logic and thinking is exactly what has gotten us into the dire climate crisis we find ourselves in right now.

Until every parking lot canopy and every eligible rooftop in eastern Massachusetts (and Easthampton) is covered by solar panels, and every vacant brownfield built on by battery storage and solar panels, neither the Healey administration nor solar and battery storage developers should lay siege upon the pristine and scenic farms, forests, and fields of western Massachusetts.

Those of us living in western Massachusetts must be ready to defend these places with the resounding power of our voices and the echoes of local history.

Raymond DiDonato lives in Wendell.