Young Forest Habitat Initiative Brings Balance to Lyme Woodland

Clear-cut, January 2015. (Credit: Mark Coventry)


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LYME – With hardly any tall trees, the ground covered in grasses and sedges, and a few large piles of brush in sight, it seems almost like something has gone wrong. As though something happened here that shouldn’t have. Gone are the rows upon rows of tall oaks and maples, the shade they provide and the quiet commonly associated with New England forests.

In fact, the open shrubland is remarkably loud. It’s ringing with the calls of six types of warblers and the eastern towhee – all species listed as those of greatest conservation need in Connecticut.

“It looks like it was devastated by something. It’s called the ‘ugly effect’ and that’s why some people don’t like doing a clear-cut,” said Mark LaCasse, the property manager for Barbara David’s property in Lyme, where a clear-cut was completed in 2014 and 2015.

David property, January 2015. (Courtesy of Lisa Wahle)

There are more than 50 species of greatest conservation need that benefit from clear-cutting and the resulting growth of young forest. Most of these species – including the New England cottontail rabbit and the American woodcock – can only survive in young forest habitat.

In fact, the open shrubland is remarkably loud. It’s ringing with the calls of six types of warblers and the eastern towhee – all species listed as those of greatest conservation need in Connecticut.

Out of 1.8 million acres of forestland in Connecticut, only 5 percent are primarily seedlings and saplings. As a result, not only wildlife like rabbits, but also short-lived trees like aspen, white and gray birch, as well as shade intolerant trees like the oak, are becoming increasingly rare across the state.

“Farm abandonment in the last century initially provided great young habitat and now we have lots of old forest,” said Lisa Wahle, a contractor for the Wildlife Management Institute at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).

In place of a balanced woodland with different stages of growth, the state is now almost completely older forest.

“Before there were beavers, fires and hurricanes that would naturally destroy old forest and create young forest,” Wahle said. “We don’t let those things happen anymore. Beavers are confined to areas where they won’t damage homes and roads and often they are trapped, so we have lost much of our young forest habitat.”

Burnings, a common practice that Native Americans used to create young forest, are now regulated, and constrained by greater numbers of residents,
said Emery Gluck, an environmental protection forester for the State Forestry Division of DEEP.

In Lyme, public and private landowners are working together to change that, and to create young forest. Barbara David, a private landowner and passionate conservationist, together with the nonprofit Lyme Land Conservation Trust, and DEEP, which manages the publicly-owned Nehantic State Forest, are clear-cutting and growing young forest in phases on three adjoining properties to create more than 80 acres of habitat for species like the warblers and cottontail as well as oak trees.

“We are super excited to be a part of it,” said Sue Cope, the environmental director for the Lyme Land Conservation Trust. “It’s such a unique and amazing opportunity.”

Uprooting an invasive tree of heaven from regenerating shrubland (Courtesy of Lisa Wahle)

The Lyme Land Conservation Trust property was clear-cut last year – four years after the David Property – and a regeneration cut, focused mainly on encouraging young oak tree growth in the Nehantic State Forest, began this spring. With the clear-cutting in-progress, part of the work of the project is to ensure that the species that return are native, rather than invasive plants that tend to take hold in disturbed areas, Wahle said.

Pushback on clear-cutting

It’s not always easy to convincing everyone that clear-cutting is a good thing, however.

“The greatest push back we got was really from the immediate neighborhood. They are worried about what’s going to happen to their forest,” Cope said. “We have really done our best to reach out to neighbors and hold meetings to make sure everyone understands.”

But typically, just one trip out into a patch that’s been clear-cut will do the trick, Wahle said. “It wins people over like that once they see and hear all the diversity we have in these areas,” she said.

The term “clear-cutting” has received a bad name in part because it has become associated with deforestation in areas such as the Amazon rain forest. Clear-cutting to regrow young forest, however, is an entirely different thing, Gluck said. The land is not changing uses. It is not becoming anything other than forest. It is simply becoming a young forest again.

“Just like we want more biodiversity of the fauna,” Coventry said. “We want more biodiversity of the age and structure of the flora.”

On the David property, Coventry is working to create what is called a stadium effect. In subsequent cuts, instead of clearing the entire patch he will instead leave a buffer of young forest between the old forest and the clear-cut, removing hard edges and providing multiple types of habitat to increase the diversity of plants and animals. Coventry will likely cut the property again within the next five to ten years.

The Lyme Land Conservation Trust, Slawson Preserve, one year after clear-cutting, July 2019. (Courtesy of Lisa Wahle)

“It’s important to impress upon people that even though it is forest devastation, the attraction for all of us is because we are creating this unique habitat and new forest,” Cope said. “It’s very hard for the general public to look at it and rationalize the scope of the project.”

People generally expect nature to be beautiful, but as Cope explained, there are several necessary processes that may not appear beautiful. An empty dirt field or piles of brush may not seem like the beginning of an abundant, diverse ecosystem, but they truly are.

“Sometimes people are willing to do cuts but they think the brush and branches look like a mess,” Cope said. “But those are so important. They provide wildlife with intermediate habitats as the new forest grows around them.”

For want of a rabbit

It has been more than two decades since environmentalists settled on the need to return a portion of Connecticut woodlands to young forest, but securing the support and funding to make that happen has taken time.

“At first it was really hard to get money or gain any traction, people don’t like to part with their trees,” Wahle said.

“I like to say the bunny listing came with money and support” – Lisa Wahle, a contractor for the Wildlife Management Institute at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection

But in 2006, the New England cottontail was declared a candidate for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“This allowed the state and federal agencies to come up with a plan for recovery that would end up benefiting a lot of other species that use the same habitat,” Wahle said. “I like to say the bunny listing came with money and support.”

David property, four years after clear-cutting, July 2019. (Courtesy of Lisa Wahle)

The New England cottontail’s status allowed projects like Wahle’s Young Forest Habitat Initiative to apply and receive funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The NRCS provides about $1,400 per acre for tree removal. The funding is intended to supplement the cost of the projects.

“Their policy is [that] the money is a supplement,” Wahle said. “But honestly, people would never do the work if they would lose money on it. The NRCS comes very close to covering the cost.”

In the case of the work in Nehantic State Forest, the state is paid by a logging company to cut and collect the lumber, Gluck said.

“The money from the sale goes to the timber revolving fund,” Gluck said. “That funding is being used to maintain the forest roads and trails to keep the property accessible to the public.”

A map of Young Forest projects in southeast Connecticut. The yellow areas show completed projects. The Lyme project is in the very lower left-hand corner. Pink triangles show New England cottontail confirmations since 2009. Green-shaded areas are cottontail restoration focus areas (Courtesy of Lisa Wahle)

In addition to the work in Lyme, there are two nearby projects in Montville, as well as many others across the northern corners of the state. 

“It is important to remember we aren’t trying to create young forest everywhere, we want most of our state in this old type of forest,” Gluck said. “It’s just we have so little in any other type that there is a need for new projects.” 

The name “Mark Coventry” is incorrect, and has been changed in this story to Mark LaCasse.