Anyone who has stumbled onto an old stonewall in the woods knows that the way we use land changes radically over time.

A Mainer from 1850 would be shocked to see how all the fields and homesteads that had been cleared for farmland in his day have been allowed to grow back as forest, making Maine’s woods as plentiful and productive as they have ever been.

It is clear that there is another transition underway. Development pressure means that the New England forest is shrinking. New kinds of companies that own smaller parcels and that are looking for faster returns than traditional industrial owners have the potential of speeding up development.

A study issued this week by Harvard University finds that trend will have economic and environmental damage if steps are not taken. The study’s authors propose putting 70 percent of New England’s forest into protection that would permit commercial and residential use.

Maine, which is the most heavily forested state in the Northeast, would seem to have little to worry about, but the forest remains a cornerstone of our economy and a vital environmental asset. So this trend cannot be taken lightly. One ongoing effort, The Great Forest Initiative, has brought land owners, environmentalists and the state Forest Service together to find a uniquely Maine approach to preserve woodlands while letting commercial forestry and recreation expand.

keeping large tracts of woodland intact, the Maine woods can remain the home of rare and endangered species.

Their proposal is to start with a series of pilot projects that would buy development rights from landowners and provide incentives to manage their holdings in ways that maximize their environmental value.

The idea is not to pay the landowners to meet their legal requirements, but to give them incentives to exceed them.

The initiative is seeking the support from the federal government, which would be the source of funding needed to make this happen.

Preserving Maine’s forest is an important goal, and it’s important to remember that it won’t happen on its own. The forest in it’s current state has not always been here, and it could be lost if we don’t take care of it.