Saving the forest by cutting trees?

Associated Press

Roberta Green, who had just finished hiking past towering oaks, clusters of birch trees and an unusual black maple in Robinson State Park, pulled three photographs from her backpack.

The pictures were an ugly contrast with the bright foliage surrounding her, depicting invasive plants and chunks of fallen trees littering nearby Chicopee Memorial State Park.

Green uses those pictures to warn against the state's plan to fell about 2,000 acres of trees during the next year.

"This is what happens," said Green, a member of the Wednesday Walkers, a group of seniors in western Massachusetts who stroll regularly through the region's parks and forests. "They want to come in and destroy the forest."

State officials say dead, decaying and diseased trees threaten to injure hikers and prevent healthy trees from properly maturing. Foresters say thinning is a common practice. But opponents liken it to an act of violence.

Robinson State Park has become a flashpoint. A group led by local residents is trying to stop the harvesting of 130 acres in the 800-acre park and has persuaded the state to hold off on any tree-cutting until November 2007.

Stephen H. Burrington, commissioner of the state's Department of Conservation and Recreation, said his agency would have an independent group review its plans and would take recommendations into consideration.

Still, thinning will certainly play a role.

In Rhode Island, "we do harvesting every year," said Catherine Sparks, acting chief of that state's Division of Forest Environment. "But it's not just a question of cranking out board feet. It's a question of intelligently assessing what's appropriate to cut." (A "board foot" is a unit of lumber equal to a board 1 foot square and 1 inch thick.)

Connecticut Division of Forestry Director Donald H. Smith said about 1,400 acres are harvested annually within the state's 170,000-acre forest system.

"Harvesting makes sure that healthy trees have the nutrients they need to keep growing," he said. "Crowded trees are at a disadvantage because they're fighting with their neighbors for food."

Massachusetts neglected forest management until about three years ago, state officials say, largely because of a lack of money.

Besides thinning forests, the state is also protecting large areas from cutting. In September, the Department of Conservation and Recreation announced it was putting aside about 100,000 acres in forest reserves in the Berkshires and in central and southeastern Massachusetts.

Most trees in the 500,000 acres of state forest are 50 to 150 years old, growth that has taken over open fields and farmland.

Massachusetts is the eighth-most-forested state, and tree growth is far outpacing tree death -- 71 million board feet versus 26 million board feet a year.

"In general, our forests are healthy," said Chief Forester James DiMaio. "But our forests are getting mature. And if they're not managed, there is more risk of wildfire. And large, dying trees with bad limbs are very dangerous to the public. That's just a fact. You have to take care of the hazardous trees."

But cutting brings its own problems. The biggest, many say, is the spread of invasive species.

Japanese knotweed. Burning bush. Bittersweet. These are the plants shown in Roberta Green's Chicopee photographs, and they can easily get out of control.

"They take over and then you have no regeneration of trees beneath it," said Robert Leverett, co-founder of the Eastern Native Tree Society. Although thinning is an important forest management tool, he said, it must be used wisely.

Burrington said the pesky weeds would be dealt with by logging companies hired to harvest the trees. He said those companies would be expected to monitor and manage the growth of invasive species.

Burrington stresses that any thinning programs would target sickly trees. But many critics fear that thinning might lead to logging of healthy trees for lumber.

"We'd just like to see this place left alone so our children and their children could enjoy this place," said Wednesday Walkers member Betty Johnson, 70.

"It would be a shame to come in here and rip out any of these beautiful trees."

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