Wendell Forest protesters bring state to court over logging project

  • Wendell State Forest Alliance members and supporters protest about logging in the Wendell State Forest before appearing in Franklin County Superior Court to outline their case against the state Department of Conservation and Recreation on Wednesday afternoon. Glen Ayers, a co-plaintiff, speaks to the group. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Wendell State Forest Alliance posted this banner outside near the courthouse on Hope Street in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Co-plaintiff Glen Ayers of Greenfield speaks during a hearing in Franklin County Superior Court outlining the Wendell State Forest Alliance’s case against the Mass. DCR on Wednesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Assistant Attorney General Kendra Kinscherf, who was representing the state in court, speaks during a hearing in Franklin County Superior Court between the Wendell State Forest Alliance and the Department of Conservation and Recreation on Wednesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Co-plaintiff Glen Ayers of Greenfield speaks during a hearing in Franklin County Superior Court outlining the Wendell State Forest Alliance’s case against the Department of Conservation and Recreation on Wednesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Wendell State Forest Alliance members and supporters protest about logging in the Wendell State Forest before appearing in Franklin County Superior Court to outline their case against the Department of Conservation and Recreation on Wednesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Co-plaintiff Gia Neswald of Turners Falls speaks during a hearing in Franklin County Superior Court outlining the Wendell State Forest Alliance’s case against the Department of Conservation and Recreation on Wednesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Wendell State Forest Alliance members and supporters protest about logging in the Wendell State Forest before appearing in Franklin County Superior Court to outline their case against the Department of Conservation and Recreation on Wednesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Assistant Attorney General Kendra Kinscherf, who was representing the state in court, speaks during a hearing in Franklin County Superior Court between the Wendell State Forest Alliance and the Department of Conservation and Recreation on Wednesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 8/22/2019 1:00:32 AM
Modified: 8/22/2019 1:00:22 AM

GREENFIELD — Logging in Wendell State Forest will continue for now, but a judge is considering whether or not to halt the project until a suit against the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) is settled at trial.

The Wendell State Forest Alliance — a group of 29 co-plaintiffs suing the state — appeared in Franklin County Superior Court Wednesday to outline their case.

They are looking to permanently stop logging at an 80-acre old oak stand in Wendell State Forest that began two weeks ago, citing concerns about climate change, the forest’s recreational value, and the well-being of native animal and plant populations. Named as defendants in the civil lawsuit are Kathleen A. Theoharides, secretary of the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs; Leo Roy, DCR commissioner; and William Hill, DCR State/Public Lands Forestry Program director.

“The reason we are here is DCR has refused to meet with us and discuss anything to do with this,” said co-plaintiff Glen Ayers of Greenfield, adding that bringing the group’s complaints before a judge was a “last resort.”

Specifically, the forest protesters were asking Judge Michael Callan to order a “preliminary injunction,” which would halt the logging project until the case against the state is settled in an official trial. To make such an order, Callan explained the protesters would have to demonstrate they would likely win a future trial.

Callan said he would take the issue under advisory and let the parties know “as quick as possible” if he has ordered a preliminary injunction or not. Callan made this decision after he heard verbal arguments from co-plaintiffs Ayers and Gia Neswald — the plaintiffs do not have an attorney — and the state, represented by Kendra Kinscherf, assistant attorney general. The named state defendants in the lawsuit did not appear in court Wednesday.

In his opening remarks, Ayers cited Miller v. Commissioner for the Department of Environmental Management — a predecessor to DCR. The 1969 case affirmed that commercial activities in public forests used for recreation should only be allowed if they are “essential to the quiet enjoyment of the facilities.”

Ayers argued the logging project, being carried out by John H. Conkey & Sons Logging Inc., a private company from Belchertown, is not “essential,” and would cause “irreparable harm” to the forest’s recreational value.

“I am not opposed to proper forest management,” Ayers said. “But we have been excluded from any public participation for this project.”

Ayers said the group has sent letters and emails, and made phone calls, to ask DCR about appealing the project, and has received no responses.

Also cited by the plaintiffs were state acts, such as the Global Warming Solutions Act, which they claim the project violates. The Wendell State Forest Alliance, since beginning its rallies, petitions and protests last year, has consistently mentioned the project is counterproductive in fighting climate change. Large, older trees, like those being harvested, sequester more carbon than their younger counterparts — carbon sequestration is a phenomenon accepted by the U.N. as necessary in combating global warming.

Neswald said the state has also denied the protesters “due process” by not conducting and releasing studies on the project’s effects on the environment.

But the state painted a very different picture of the project, with Kinscherf pointing out a 45-day public comment period was allowed before the project, and that DCR received and reviewed “extensive” comments from the Wendell State Forest Alliance members.

“They were part of the process,” Kinscherf said. “They can’t demonstrate irreparable harm or a likelihood of winning (at a future trial).”

Kinscherf said the project is being conducted using the best forest management practices, and is a “selective” harvesting project in only a small portion of the more than 8,000-acre state forest. No new roads are being built, and DCR is mindful of not impacting wetlands or vernal pools. The project is also best for forest health, she said.

“There are diseased trees there and DCR believes these diseased trees could be a concern for the safety of the people who enjoy that area,” Kinscherf said.

More than 50 people were in the courtroom for the proceedings, filling up both sections reserved for the public.

At one point, Callan threatened to “clear the courtroom” and throw protesters out after many in the audience laughed loudly at a comment from Kinscherf, who said DCR is looking to maintain and even improve the forest.

“This is a courtroom. This is not a free-for-all,” Callan said.

It is DCR’s policy not to comment on pending litigation. However, Roy, DCR commissioner, said in a meeting with the Wendell Selectboard last year that the project will actually be best for combating climate change in the long run. According to Roy, many of Massachusetts’ forests are too homogenous, and by selectively logging, DCR creates forests with trees diverse in species and age.

By having forests consisting of trees of differing ages, Roy said the most carbon will be sequestered in the long term, because there will be a constant flow of trees reaching their peak carbon sequestering ages.

After Wednesday’s hearing, Neswald, lead plaintiff for the Wendell State Forest Alliance, who has been arrested twice in the last two weeks trying to physically stop the logging project, said her feelings about the judge waiting to deliver a decision were “complex.”

“I’m encouraged. (Judge Callan) seemed interested,” Neswald said. “But for years I’ve known that the extraordinary constitution of this commonwealth says we the people are the sovereign, but in daily practice it is the government.”

Prior to Wednesday’s proceedings, protesters gathered outside the courthouse to rally, singing songs and holding signs in support of their cause.

Commenting on DCR’s stance that the project is best for forest health, Ayers said DCR has become “deniers” on the issue of climate change, and the agency has “no science” to prove the project is best for long-term carbon sequestration.

“They know we’re in a climate crisis. There is no time to waste,” said Ayers, who worked as a regional health agent for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments for 11 years prior to retirement. “We don’t have 100 years.”

Reach David McLellan at 413-772-0261, ext. 268 or dmclellan@recorder.com.


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