DEEP stays the course with plan to cut 66 pines
CORNWALL — Senior officials from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) held a Zoom meeting with 90-odd citizens concerned about removing trees at Housatonic Meadows State Park Thursday, Jan. 6.
Deputy Commissioner Mason Trumble began with an apology, saying he wished the meeting had occurred before trees were cut in November — including a row of oak trees on a high bank overlooking the Housatonic River that was a popular picnic spot.
Tom Taylor, director of state parks, said Connecticut has 110 parks covering 255,000 acres, not to mention 32 state forests. State parks have an estimated 13 million visitors yearly, he continued, including 280,000 campers.
(Housatonic Meadows has two areas, both along Route 7: a campground and a multiple-use area.)
He said the parks have experienced “significant increases” in visitation in the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, Housatonic Meadows in particular.
Taylor said there have been injuries and deaths because of failing trees in state parks. Recently two trees at Housatonic Meadows failed; one fell into the parking lot.
Since 2018, the state has removed some 18,000 trees deemed hazards, with a focus on high-use areas.
DEEP developed a set of criteria for identifying hazard trees. Once identified, they are removed. The process does not include public notification. Both Trumble and Taylor said that in the future public notice would be included in the process.
A refined process
for next cut
Christopher Martin from DEEP’s forestry division said the map of trees slated for removal at Housatonic Meadows was reviewed after the outcry when the initial cuts were made. Some of the remaining trees will remain, some designated for pruning rather than removal, and some will still be removed.
The revised plan for the day use area is to prune 16 pines, save two more without any treatment, and to remove 66. For hardwood trees, of which 56 were removed in November, seven will be saved without treatment, and nine more removed.
Martin said oaks and other trees are at risk from gypsy moth infestation; white pines are in similar danger from the white pine weevil.
A white oak at the campground, which is something of a landmark, is struggling, Martin said. “We’re going to wait and see what happens.”
DEEP plans to fix up Housatonic Meadows, Rick Jacobsen from the Bureau of Natural Resources said.
He said the high bank along the river, where the oaks were, is not in need of “intrusive stabilization.”
He said the greatest source of erosion is “unsustainable footpaths” leading down to the river, formed over the decades by anglers and others.
A relatively easy fix is to add large rocks to these paths to serve as steps.
Trumble wrapped up DEEP’s presentation by reiterating the agency’s concern with public safety.
He said DEEP will remove the trees still designated as hazards.
Apology for poor
He said DEEP’s internal communications were not good. “Fisheries had concerns that didn’t get addressed,” he cited as an example.
External (i.e. public) communications were poor as well, he continued.
He reiterated that the current process has no public notification provision. “That has to change.”
He said DEEP will develop guidelines and notify the public in advance of any large-scale removal of trees.
Trumble also said DEEP would improve communications with local organizations such as the Housatonic Valley Association and the Housatonic River Commission.
Public comment then began, with a question from state Rep. Maria Horn (D-64), who wanted to know who reviews the field reports and recommendations on hazard trees.
Horn was interrupted by the meeting moderator, DEEP’s Janice DeShais, who said the meeting was an opportunity for DEEP officials to get public comments, not a question-and-answer session.
Trumble answered the question anyway, saying he didn’t think there was much of a review. “This is an area where we could improve.”
Michael Nadeau, a resident of Sharon and a retired arborist, said he and his group, the Housatonic Meadows Preservation Action Group, wanted a moratorium on tree cutting, a comprehensive restoration plan and better communications from DEEP.
He said he wanted to “preserve, not remove, heritage trees” and noted that pruning is less expensive than removal.
Tom Zetterstrom of North Canaan agreed with Nadeau and added that he has been involved for four years in a project to control invasive plants along the river by the historic Covered Bridge between Sharon and West Cornwall.
He asked that DEEP reach out to him when it develops a plan to deal with invasives. Zetterstrom, a well-known area tree expert, was founder of Elm Watch, dedicated to protecting the remaining elm trees in the region, most of which had been killed by disease.
He also asked that DEEP’s process of assessment of hazard trees be expanded outside the agency, to include arborists.
Peter Del Tredici of Cornwall asked, if public safety was the primary concern, why didn’t DEEP simply move the picnic tables away from the oak trees?
State Sen. Craig Miner (R-30), who filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents relating to the tree cutting, said he could see how DEEP needs to respond to problems with individual trees. “But this is an extraordinary amount of work.”
Tim Abbott from the Housatonic Valley Association urged that DEEP adopt “a more holistic” approach to the state parks and forests.
“Ask ‘what are we managing for?’”
A commenter urged that arborists, not DEEP foresters, make the decisions about which trees need to go; one person wondered what happened to the harvested wood from Housatonic Meadows; one said DEEP has credibility problems and urged the agency not to cut any additional trees until the situation at the park is better understood; one person said the agency should take a “first do no harm” approach.
In the days following the Jan. 6 meeting, members of the Housatonic Meadows Preservation Action Group were active on email, planning protests and discussing the state’s intentions.
The group noted that snow had been plowed in the Housatonic Meadows parking lot and they anticipated that this meant that 66 pines slated for removal would be cut down as early as Saturday morning.
By Monday morning, Jan. 10, no tree work had begun but members of the group had confirmed that DEEP would not grant them a moratorium on the cutting.
An attorney was approached to see if there could be a temporary hold imposed on the timber cutting (the attorney declined to represent the group). And another protest was planned for Tuesday, Jan. 11, when it was anticipated that tree cutting would begin.
The group described themselves as nice people who are prepared to be arrested for trying to protect the pines.