Fires and logging aren’t typically seen as hallmarks of a healthy forest — but for Connecticut’s 5,000-acre Nehantic State Forest, fires and logging are helping improve the health of the forest.
“The basic tenant to forestry is to improve the forest from current conditions to a more healthy and diverse forest,” said Emery Gluck, a state forester managing Nehantic for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “Historically the forest coevolved with fire, then natives burned to make the forest more habitable. Now we are trying to do a replication of what that might have looked like.”
For the eleventh time, this spring Gluck will burn 17 acres of the Lyme portion of the forest, just off Route 156.
“This year we are going to put up big signs – ‘controlled burn, not an emergency,’” Gluck said. “Every time we get flooded with 911 calls.”
At the start of the 20th century more than 30,000 acres burned annually in Connecticut, mostly due to man-made wildfires, according to the DEEP. By 1955, that number had dropped to near zero. Last year, it was a few hundred acres.
The dramatic decline in fires came as the main source of energy switched from coal and hydropower to oil, Gluck said. Cutting down, piling, up, covering with mud and burning trees produced valuable charcoal.
“One patch of forest would burn once every 33 years in Connecticut. Today the turnover rate is 10,000 years,” Gluck said. “This made most of our forest what is called a closed canopy.”
In other words, all of the forest trees are roughly the same age – 100 years old — and roughly the same height, preventing new growth.
“Back then we had too much fire and now we have too little fire from an ecological point of view,” Gluck said.
The decrease in wild and man-made fires has taken its toll on the forest. The once common Pitch Pine, is now all but gone from the state forests. According to Gluck, there was one in all of Nehantic, which he thinks has now died.
In the northeast, fires are viewed negatively, because they are so rare, said Gluck. And unlike coniferous forests in the west, the eastern deciduous forests are far less flammable the longer they go without a burn.
So, to maintain the oak forests, Gluck has reintroduced fires – and continued logging – in Nehantic.
“Oak forests have historically been sustained by combinations of fires and understory and overstory disturbances, tree deaths from disease, insects or wind,” Gluck said. “Without that understory disturbance there isn’t enough light for the saplings to grow.”
In addition to preventing sapling growth, many older trees have recently fallen due to a combination of gypsy moths and drought that results in a stress-triggered disease called oak decline. Unfortunately, Gluck said, these trees are not all in the same area – so they do not help promote young forest.
As a proxy for fire, Gluck said he allows loggers to harvest big and small trees.
“After the logging my volunteer and I come back and cut the sprouts to prevent them from coming back,” Gluck said.
Gluck said his ultimate goal is to renew 10 percent of the Nehantic forest to a treed savannah environment called young forest.
“I like to say we have to provide for the oaks so they can make it through adolescence, just like parents have to provide for their kids,” Gluck said.
Although oaks are the major concern in Nehantic, emerald ash borers are devastating the few ash trees that are present.
Other problems in the forest
Apart from the old forest, the dumping of trash has become a significant issue in the Nehantic State Forest.
“There are always beer cans and bottles, but near Rodger’s Lake I see trash bags and even appliances like a washing machine,” Gluck said.
As the state grapples with the current garbage crisis, there is a growing possibility of towns implementing a ‘pay-as-you-throw system’ requiring individual homeowners to pay for each bag of waste collected.
The fear is that the policy may also encourage more illegal dumping in the woods.
“I think it would increase the amount of dumping in the forest,” Gluck said. “There are a lot of little pieces of state land that would be easy for people to dump on.”
To prevent dumping in Nehantic, Gluck said they try to limit the number of access roads. Most trails are blocked off from motor vehicles and ATVs are not allowed in the park.