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Northern Forest Center creating economic opportunity

Quick: what is the largest forest east of the Mississippi River?

Quick: what is the largest forest east of the Mississippi River?

Here’s a hint: An enormous chunk of it stretches across New Hampshire’s North Country.

If you’re having trouble naming it, you’re not alone. Most of us are accustomed to thinking of discrete chunks of forest: The White Mountain National Forest, the Green Mountain National Forest.

But the Northern Forest in its entirety comprises 30 million acres stretching across 400 miles in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York. Two million people live in the region. An astonishing 70 million people live within a day’s drive of it.

The Northern Forest Center is a nonprofit organization that is working to create economic opportunity and vital communities through healthy working forests. Much of the Northern Forest region has faced a series of economic challenges — in New Hampshire, those include the collapse of paper mills, closing of wood products manufacturing companies and population decline. The Northern Forest Center works to create new models for using resources at-hand to create economic opportunity.

Through the Center’s Berlin Model Neighborhood Project, which is supported by the Charitable Foundation’s Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund, 40 homeowners installed high-efficiency wood-pellet boilers, creating a “cluster” of demand for a local, renewable wood resource — wood pellets.

So far, homeowners and nonprofits have saved $148,947 on fuel; reduced net greenhouse gas emissions by 872 tons; and the project has had a $567,068 impact on the local economy.

“We have what I think of as a ‘renewable energy economy’ underway in Berlin,” said Northern Forest Center president Rob Riley.

The Northern Forest Center’s Berlin Model Neighborhood Project was featured in a recent edition of “Giving Matters,” a public radio series that is a partnership between New Hampshire Public Radio and the Charitable Foundation. As homeowner David Benkendorf points out, it just makes good sense to rely on fuel from a local, renewable forest resource.

“If I look out the windows into my backyard or anywhere when I’m driving around the north country, I see lots of trees,” Benkendorf says, “And I’ve lived here for several years now, and I have yet to see an oil derrick.”

In addition to Model Neighborhood Projects in four states, which are helping people to convert to modern wood heating systems, the Northern Forest Center has a range of programs focusing on everything from increased innovation in wood products manufacturing to ecosystems services, tourism development, and expanding community forest ownership. Last year alone, the Center’s $1.3-million program investment leveraged $8.3 million for the region in public funding, foundation grants, business investment and resources from partner organizations.

And if you are one of the 70 million people who live within a day’s drive of the Northern Forest, check it out…there’s really never a bad time to acquaint yourself with the woods.