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How Felling Trees Can Help Fortify a New England Forest

Ryan Caron King
Gerald Bellows of Gibson Hill Forest Products observes a tree that he'll soon cut down.
Timber harvests give trees space to open up their crowns, and the forest floor more opportunity to absorb light.

Walk a few hundred yards into the woods in Durham, Connecticut, and you'll see something that looks like it's out of "Mad Max" -- large trucks, with big wheels, and giant robotic arms, grabbing trees and slicing them down. 

But this controlled chaos is a calculated timber harvest, with the long-term goal of creating a more resilient forest.

"People generally don't appreciate the way it looks right now," said Lindsay Suhr, with the Connecticut Forest and Parks Association. "In a few years it will look very different, so they might have a different appreciation."

We talked at Field Forest on Bear Rock Road in Durham. Chainsaws were going strong. After a lot of time spent marking trees and planning cuts, trees finally began to fall, leaving behind piles of logs and decomposing stumps.

It's messy.

"People are like: well, the forest will do it itself. Why are we in here wreaking havoc on the forest?" said Suhr.

Which gets us to the issue of time. Yes, eventually, a forest would regenerate itself. But forester Eric Hansen, who coordinated the harvest, said one point of the cutback is essentially to speed up that process -- removing trees that otherwise would rot and die on their own.

"For the most part, what we're trying to do here is a thinning of the overstory," said Hansen.

Which gets us to another point of the harvest: playing with space. As we walked deeper into the woods, Hansen said it's important loggers create openings that let the forest breathe. It gives trees space to open up their crowns, and gives the forest floor more opportunity to absorb light.

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
A machine called a forwarder stacks piles of wood that will be bought by a forest products company and possibly shipped overseas to Europe and Asia.

"If you look up, you can see that there is probably, maybe about a quarter acre opening in the canopy here," Hansen said. "It's going to encourage what we would call 'moderately shade tolerant' to 'shade tolerant' species to come back. In this particular case, that means sugar maple. That means ash. That probably means red maple."

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Gerald Bellows of Gibson Hill Forest Products watches as a tree he cut down falls to the forest floor in Durham, Connecticut.

Hansen pointed to the ground -- and the little seedlings were there, popping up. And because of the cut, they were bathed in light.

"This stuff will be able to -- what we call become established with the additional sunlight," he said, "and start to become the next generation of this forest."

Hansen said loggers created about 10 or so openings of this size.

Gerald Bellows was one of those loggers. As he took a break from cutting trees, he pointed out a large trail of brush and slash that he left behind in the wake of his work.

"We do that deliberately," he said, "so that if water does drain down it -- it gets kind of mixed up with that brush and it slows the water down so it doesn't carry the sediment with it."

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Jeremy Bellows of Gibson Hill Forest Products takes a water break after working on a cutting down a patch of trees in Durham.

Deeper in the woods, a big machine called a forwarder stacked piles of wood. It will be bought by a forest products company and some will get shipped overseas to Europe and Asia.

In addition to the loggers, foresters, and machines out at Field Forest, there was one more guest worth pointing out --- this one, uninvited: emerald ash borer, or EAB.

As we talked, forester Eric Hansen pointed out a sickly-looking ash tree that attracted the interest of a local woodpecker.

"You can see some of this light-colored stuff on this side of this fork," he said. "That's a process that we call blonding, which is created by woodpeckers who are knocking off just the outside part of the bark to get at the larvae, of EAB, which are just underneath."

Hansen said he was out here months ago tagging trees to decide which ones would get cut. The ash tree was alive and well then, which showed just how dire is the situation for Connecticut's ash trees.

Still, as Hansen recounted biological and chemical efforts to combat EAB and keep ash trees alive, he said he's trying to stay optimistic. "It's not a forgone conclusion that we are absolutely going to lose all of our ash," he said.

Especially, he hopes the generation of seedlings lining the forest floor can now get a little bit more sunlight as loggers work to open up the woods in Field Forest.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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