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Group decries logging in Northampton watershed

Disputed tree-cutting on Whately land

WHATELY — Chris Matera of Northampton said he was driving through Whately to go skiing two weeks ago when he noticed piles of fresh-cut logs at the mouth of a trail into a forest.

“I said, ‘Wait, isn’t that the watershed?,’” he recalled recently.

Matera, who heads a statewide group opposed to logging on publicly owned land called Massachusetts Forest Watch, was appalled to think Northampton was allowing logging on the watershed surrounding the Francis P. Ryan and West Whately reservoirs.

Since then, he has been rallying supporters and lobbying to stop the logging. Mayor David J. Narkewicz said he has received three calls and 12 emails from city residents and another 20 emails from nonresidents.

But Northampton city officials defend tree-cutting on the watershed, arguing that the carefully planned, selective cutting will improve the overall health of the forest by diversifying the age and type of trees, which will in turn be good for the city’s water supply.

“The forest captures, filters, stores and releases water into the reservoirs little by little. It’s not hard to imagine that the healthiest forest is going to do a better job,” forester Michael Mauri said while walking the Whately woods Friday.

The city hired Mauri to work with the Department of Public Works to write the 2012 Forest Stewardship Plans, which address logging and other activities in the watershed. He oversees the logging now.

But Matera argues that there is little actual evidence that silviculture, the controlled management of forests, leads to healthier woods.

“It’s just standard timber propaganda to convince people to sell their forests,” he said Friday. “They say they have to log it to help the forest, but credible peer-reviewed science says the opposite — that it’s best to leave it alone.”

David Kittredge, a professor and extension forester at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, visited the property with his timber-harvesting class Monday. While he praised the loggers’ efforts to reduce their impact on soil compaction and streams and to promote habitat for animals, he stopped short of saying the logging was helping the forest.

“What I saw Monday was a very forested area where they are taking out a nominal amount of timber and there is a lot left standing,” he said. While the logging will increase diversity there, “I can’t say it will make it healthier.”

Conflicts over whether to allow logging on public land, including state forests and watersheds, are not new in the state. Groups like Massachusetts Forest Watch fight against tree-cutting in areas around reservoirs on the grounds that it threatens water quality, is detrimental to the forest and eliminates trees that could be helping reduce carbon dioxide in the air.

In 2010, following an intense debate over whether to continue logging in the Quabbin Reservoir watershed, Gov. Deval Patrick declared a moratorium on logging there until it could be studied further. Mauri said the moratorium was lifted and logging resumed last year.

Matera said the mayor should institute a moratorium on logging on public land here and take time to reconsider whether there is science to back up the city’s Forest Stewardship Plans. Narkewicz said he turned down Matera’s request for a meeting last week, advising him instead to discuss it with the Department of Public Works.

In response to questions from city councilors, Department of Public Works officials will present details about the logging plans at the council meeting Thursday at 7 p.m.

Face-off in woods

The dispute came to a head this week after the city learned of an incident that occurred when Matera came onto the Whately watershed property — which is not open to the public — and started taking photographs of the loggers Monday. Matera said a logger approached him and, when he learned what he was there for, started shouting and threatening him with “bodily harm.”

On Tuesday, after the logging company owner informed the city of the incident, the city’s attorney wrote an email to Matera warning that if Matera continues to trespass on the city’s posted property, the city would take legal action. Matera believes the email was sent Tuesday to force him to cancel a walk in the watershed he had planned for that afternoon with City Councilors Jesse Adams and Alisa Klein.

Logging plan

The lengthy Forest Stewardship Plans (available online at www.northamptonma.gov/1400/watershed) were completed in 2012. So far, only the forests surrounding the West Whately and Francis P. Ryan reservoirs in Whately have been logged.

The city pays the contractor to cut the trees and then gets a portion of the proceeds when they are sold as timber, pulp or firewood, said City Engineer James Laurila. But the city is losing money on logging as a whole — approximately $102,622 so far.

Mauri explained that the city had logged the property from approximately 1980 to 2000. But the program ended when the former city forester, Carl Davies, died.

Mauri, Laurila and Northampton Senior Environmental Scientist Nicole Sanford walked with a reporter Friday through the West Whately watershed, where signs of recent logging were evident. Old cart paths or trails were widened for large machinery and new trails were cut.

The forest floor there is lined with branches and other scrap wood, called slash, that the loggers left behind because it will decompose and provide nutrients for the soil and habitat for animals.

One small clearing holds several 100-foot red oak and white pine trees that the loggers left, at Mauri’s instruction. He said the idea is to cut away many hemlocks, which are expected to die from disease, and black birch so that more sunlight is available for the rarer red oak and white pine to thrive and new trees to grow.

“We want to encourage types that are more stable and have more longevity, because right now, they can’t regenerate,” he said.

He said the trees there are mostly old and less diverse because the area was clear-cut for farming when the area was settled. When the farming ended, roughly 100 years ago, trees grew up again but were dominated by certain species.

At the West Whately Reservoir, loggers are cutting some trees on 20 acres, but leaving 25 acres alone, Mauri said.

Within a few years, the areas where trees were cut will have new growth, including young trees and other vegetation, he said.

Mauri said diversity is the solution to many problems that can affect a forest. A homogenous forest could be severely damaged if there is a disease or pest affecting a certain species or a disastrous weather event, like an early snowstorm that takes down species of trees that lose their leaves later.

Downsides of logging

In a report Matera disseminated Tuesday, he argued that there is no need to log on the land. The reasons not to, he said, include the cost to taxpayers, the ecological impact and the potential public health risks. He pointed to studies such as one from Harvard University that say the best management approach is to do nothing because logging causes more harm to the ecosystem than it does good.

Large trucks compact soil and the creation of logging trails requires cutting down trees indiscriminately, he said.

Laurila said the loggers are following city instructions to minimize impact on the soil by using vehicles with tracks that spread the weight more than tires, logging when the ground is frozen and agreeing to use lighter vehicles when the ground thaws.

Matera also said that cutting trees diminishes the forest’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide, and the clearings that are created are perfect places for invasive species to take over.

Mauri agreed, but said he only suggests clearings in woods where invasives are not a problem.

Laurila said the Forest Stewardship Plan was discussed many times at public meetings when it was being drafted and he led two walks through the property to discuss the logging in November and February.

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