‘Untouched’ not always best forestry plan

  • Wendell State Forest

Published: 11/8/2018 9:19:12 AM

One hundred and ten years ago, a major forest fire swept through Wendell State Forest, resetting the forest ecosystem with new trees of a uniform age. One hundred and ten years later, this 88-acre parcel is cherished by many residents “as a living, wild and natural asset” with towering oaks that are approaching “old growth” status. Beyond the benefits of scenic beauty, wildlife habitat and recreation, the forest helps deter climate change by sequestering carbon in its trees.

So when the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation announced, in 2016, its plan to start timber harvesting in Wendell State Forest, opposition by nonprofit groups like RESTORE: The North Woods, the Partnership for Policy Integrity, the Wendell Historical Commission and private citizens quickly coalesced. The protesters’ campaign included weekly vigils along Route 2 in Erving, a notice of intent by at least one protester to sue the DCR, and a petition with 1,148 signatures delivered to Gov. Charlie Baker asking the governor to spare this “stately, 80-acre old oak forest that is just beginning to reach an old-growth condition — something that is rare in Massachusetts. Located between the two ponds, this forest is one of the most visited and cherished areas in the state forest, and we want it to remain exactly as it is — untouched by human interference.”

Last week, state officials delivered their response — “No” — along with the rationale behind it.

According to DCR’s experts, “untouched by human interference” is not necessarily the best course for forest management nor the best response to climate change.

One of the main contentions of the protesters is that the large oak trees sequester carbon — a function useful for fighting or slowing climate change. DCR Commissioner Leo Roy agrees that the old, large oak trees sequester more carbon than still-growing trees, but contends that, over the long run, it’s better to have trees that are of different ages and reach peak carbon-sequestering ages at different times. In other words, Massachusetts’ forests are too homogenous, which will not provide the “greatest long-term ability to sequester carbon.”

“We are not cutting — clear cutting — 80 acres of old-growth forest,” Roy said in a meeting with the Wendell Selectboard. “We are harvesting about 17 percent of the oak, creating 1/3-acre openings and doing some selecting thinning. There will be a continuous cover of large trees left on the site.” This process of thinning is what will allow new growth alongside the old.

While cutting any tree is unpopular in some quarters, said Roy, “under state law the responsibility falls to us to manage our state forests. We at the DCR are environmentalists and we love our trees and we love our forests.”

Taking the long view

Logging is expected to commence this month. In the short run, parts of the forest will look pretty ugly. But then, following the devastating forest fire of 110 years ago, the denuded landscape probably looked pretty ugly, too. Looking ahead 110 years into our future, this same forest will contain a mix of saplings, young trees, middle-aged trees and big old trees. That’s a landscape that will support recreation and continue to sop up excess carbon. We recommend taking the long view and keeping in our mind’s eye the healthy forest that is yet to come.


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