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Jerry Milner, a state forester, inspects a newly planted witch hazel shrub at Housatonic Meadows State Park on Tuesday, Oct. 18. Photo by John Coston

Housatonic Meadows: Restoration marches to fall schedule

SHARON — State workers arrived with heavy equipment at Housatonic Meadows State Park on Tuesday, Oct. 18, to plant trees and prepare the park for restoration.

The same environmentalists who last winter fought the state’s broad-scale tree-cutting were on the scene, lending a hand and collaborating on the renewal work.

The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) was carrying out the first phase of a project aimed at restoring the park and remediating potential drainage problems.

Eleven trees were planted along a stretch in front of the parking lot: two red oaks, two shadblows, two red maples, two witch hazel shrubs, a tulip poplar, a sycamore and a swamp white oak.

“It’s like Noah’s Ark,” said Jerry Milner, a state forester.

“And we have 10 more ordered,” he said.

The 21 new trees were purchased by the state at a cost of $7,905 and are all native species chosen for their hearty characteristics and pollinator value, Milner said.

The work is funded by the Connecticut Passport to the Parks program, which levies a fee on motor vehicle registrations, renewals and plate transfers.

DEEP’s partnership with local environmental groups represents a turnaround from protests last winter, when oaks and pines deemed hazardous by the state were removed. Citizen groups, which included tree and wildlife experts, disputed the state’s actions. Protests ensued and by the end of spring, legislation was passed in Hartford aimed at overseeing DEEP’s approach to hazardous tree removal.

“I am very satisfied. This is not easy. Credit to Jerry [Milner],” said Katherine Freygang, a member of Housatonic Meadows Preservation Action (HMPA). “The department has always wanted to help us but they’ve always felt strapped for a number of reasons.

“I think we’ve come to the very best compromise that’s possible,” Freygang said. “Everybody wanted something to work.”

Milner agreed. “I think planting trees is a good idea.”

The environmental groups continue follow-up to ensure that the state meets conditions of the legislation. Included are the Housatonic Valley Association, the National Audubon Society, Trout Unlimited and  HMPA. The Northwest Conservation District also provided the engineering work to determine runoff specifications. The Connecticut Council on Environmental Quality also supported the groups’ testimony at hearings about DEEP’s hazardous tree approach and the need to remediate damage at Housatonic Meadows.

The state’s involvement in the restoration includes many departments: parks, forestry, wildlife, fisheries and park services.

“I am satisfied. It took us a long time to understand how to work together. It’s a good relationship now,” said Bruce Bennett, also of HMPA, who is a licensed arborist and the tree warden in Kent.

“They’ve honored what they said they would do,” he said.

Following the tree planting, a second phase will start next year and includes creating a swale to carry water from the parking area to a rain garden to prevent erosion of the riverbank.  Native wildflowers will be planted in the rain gardens.

The project includes shrubs and plants to support birds, fish and other wildlife and discourage invasive species. It also features a safety barrier at the river bank with berms and boulders.

Signage will inform visitors about trails and amenities at the park, making it clear where there is access to fishing, boating and picnic areas.

In addition, signs will tell the story of the restoration project and also provide an ecology lesson in native plants and biodiversity.

The lack of a hazardous tree policy at DEEP was the focus of concern after last year’s tree-cutting, and it  drove the legislative action. DEEP has since created a policy, and now state staff has been attending tree warden school to learn what constitutes a hazardous tree, what danger it presents and how to deal with it.

“This week will be their fifth class,” Bennett said, who wrote the tree warden manual 28 years ago. “And then they have to take an exam.”

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