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DEEP oversight funding stalls tree bill’s passage

SHARON — The bill proposed by state Sen. Craig Miner (R-30) to put new oversight on the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s (DEEP) cutting of hazardous trees in state parks has stalled under the influence of end-of-session wrangling in Hartford.

Up to this point, the bill, known as Senate Bill No. 117, has had broad support. In March, it was approved 31 to 0 with one abstention in the Environment Committee. In April, the Senate approved it 32 to 3 with one nonvoting.

But the bill, which was not provided with a budget, was amended by the Senate requiring that its provisions be funded within available appropriations.

“DEEP has been saying that it’s impossible to do so,” said state Rep. Maria Horn (D-64) on Sunday, May 1.

Among its provisions, the proposed legislation calls for DEEP to consult with an arborist before taking trees that it deems to be hazardous to the public. It also calls for DEEP to replace trees that have been cut.

The bill was proposed by Miner, following DEEP’s removal of trees in Housatonic Meadows State Park in Sharon over the winter, leading to public outrage because of the extent of the cutting.

With some softening of its provisions, the bill was passed out of the Senate but now is sitting on the House calendar. It was uncertain if it would be called for a vote by the House before the end of the legislative session on Wednesday, May 4.

“At this point it’s an active conversation,” Horn said on May 1.

A fiscal analysis by the state indicated that SB 117 could result in significant costs to DEEP depending on the number of trees identified for removal or pruning.

The Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated that DEEP may need to hire seven maintainers, at a cost of $432,156 in fiscal year 2023 and $417,755 in fiscal  year 2024, including fringe benefits, to replant trees, depending on the actual number required based on an arborist’s determination.

The office further said that it could cost DEEP over $1 million annually for the cost of purchasing replacement trees, depending on the actual number required.

The removal last winter of about 100 oak and pine trees in the scenic, riverside park that is a popular recreation destination drew immediate protests. Many residents were armed to question the state’s decision-making based on their own expert credentials as arborists, tree wardens, horticulturalists and wildlife experts.

On Monday, May 2, the agency issued the following statement: “DEEP does not support SB 117. The Department has committed to adopt a policy that will provide for greater transparency and arborist consultation for the management of hazard trees.”

DEEP said the approach in SB 117 would compromise DEEP’s ability to manage trees in time-sensitive situations, such as forest fires and after major storms.

“It comes with no additional funding and would therefore divert resources from critical park operations and services,” the statement further said.

Last week, Miner said that DEEP workers at Housatonic Meadows had encroached upon a vernal pool when they were blowing wood chips across the forest floor. The chips only bled to the water’s edge. Vernal pools, considered a type of wetland, are seasonal caches of water that can provide habitat for plants and animals.

“Some of this is self-inflicted,” Miner said, referring to the loss of public confidence in DEEP as a result of its extensive cutting at Housatonic Meadows.

“I don’t get a sense that in their [DEEP] dealing with the public that they’re bending at all,” he said.

Housatonic Meadows Preservation Action (HMPA), a group of citizens formed to change DEEP’s practices on designating hazardous trees and ensure that there is a suitable remediation plan,  has worked with DEEP to propose a plan of replanting along with other restoration work.

DEEP said it has been working with a volunteer group that includes representatives from Audubon CT, HMPA, Housatonic Fly Fisherman’s Association, Housatonic River Commission, Housatonic River Outfitters and the Housatonic Valley Association.

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