Experts tout value of clearing Maltby Lakes spruce trees

NHR_L_0320 maltby lake 4_ag
NHR_L_0320 maltby lake 4_ag

WEST HAVEN >> Last summer, the chain saws revved up and the first of the cutting of the Norway spruce trees at the Maltby Lakes Recreation Area began.

Fast forward, and the final trees, infected or at risk of infestation by invasive southern pine beetles, were hauled out about two months ago, leaving behind a habitat that will benefit the area’s wildlife, according to Alexander Amendola, forester for the South Central Regional Water Authority.

While the cutting has left an eyesore for many neighbors and visitors, who must purchase a pass to use the area and have called the RWA to complain, Amendola said that the cutting will ultimately benefit the forest and the wildlife.

“It’s actually fantastic for the forest,” he said. “Connecticut has a huge problem with a lack of young forests.”

“If you want to aid wildlife, you’re going to want regeneration,” Amendola added.

Benefits of youth

A lot of young forests are lost to development, said Tom Andersen, communications director for the Connecticut Audubon Society.

Some bird species, such as blue-winged warblers, which rely on shrubbery and prairie-like habitats indicative of young forests, have been declining at a rate of 9 percent per year, according to Andersen.

“Those birds are declining at an alarming rate,” Andersen said. “We’ve lost a lot of that habitat.”

Andersen said the Audubon Society has taken on clearing projects on about 250 acres across the state to manage and maintain those younger forests filled with shrubs for the migratory birds.

“It looks abysmal when it’s first done,” he said of the cutting. “But, it’s bound to be a good idea, even if it’s going to look ugly.”

Ideally, in Connecticut, about 10-15 percent of the forests should be young, or open spaces filled with brush where young saplings can grow with ease with access to sunlight, according to Jeffrey Ward, a chief scientist in the Department of Forestry and Horticulture at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

Ward said statistics gathered by the CAES over the years have shown a decline in young forests statewide with only about 5 percent of young forest left.

By not cutting trees or doing controlled burns in older, mature forests, regeneration is not possible, and wildlife and tree species miss out on the benefits, Ward said.

“We want to have a wide variety of habitats,” he said, adding that many bird species, turtles, snakes and deer, need young forests to thrive and raise their young. Young forests are bursting with seeds and fruit, he said.

“It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet before they head south for the winter,” he said.

Future of Maltby Lakes

The removal of about 444,000 board feet of timber from the Maltby Lakes Recreation Area was spurred by an infestation last year of the southern pine beetle, a pest that attacks conifers and does not typically live this far north, Amendola said. Board feet are measured as 12-by-12 squares of wood that are 1 inch thick, Amendola said. The timber will be processed to make building materials or mulch, depending on the quality of the wood, he said.

The clearing of the infested spruce and surrounding older trees that also were susceptible to being invaded and killed by the effects of the beetles looking for food, was recommended by the U.S. Forest Service, Amendola said. It’s a method that has a high rate of success in eliminating the invasive pests in an area.

Southern pine beetles feast on coniferous tree trunks, spreading a blue stain fungus that helps feed their young, according to the CAES. Strong, healthy trees can reject the beetles with their resin.

“Most people don’t realize trees have a pathological life,” Amendola said. The spruce trees in the Maltby Lakes area live an average of 80 years to 120 years and were quite old, he said, therefore more susceptible to the beetles.

The Maltby Lakes region is not ideal for these spruce trees to grow, given the quality of the soil and proximity to development and Derby Avenue, he said. To help the growth of new trees, Amendola said the soil was broken up a bit during the logging, to help loosen buried seeds and allow them to germinate this spring.

No spruce trees will be planted this spring, Amendola said, but he is hopeful some hardwoods, such as oak and tulip trees, will start to grow on their own.

The RWA manages 27,000 acres of land surrounding 10 active reservoirs in the region. The Maltby Lakes are not active reservoirs, but the water company manages surrounding land to maintain good water quality.