Group protests mass cutting of trees at Housatonic Meadows State Park [Rep-Am]

January 18, 2022

From the Republican-American (1/13/2022):

SHARON — As a group gathered Thursday at Housatonic Meadows State Park to protest the removal of a huge number of oaks and pines by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, two eagles glided overhead. Some of those in attendance said seeing the birds fly from the trees only served to reinforce the reason for their outcry.

“I call them the Department of Environmental Destruction,” protestor Jeff Jacobson of Cornwall said of DEEP. “If they’re really concerned about trees, maybe they should close down the Appalachian Trail,” he added, sardonically.

State Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, and Rep. Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield, ranking members of the legislature’s Environmental Committee, issued a statement Thursday calling for additional documents from DEEP in connection with the tree removal. In their statement, Miner said it appears DEEP has no intention of considering the testimony given by experts.

“They have no plan for replanting, bank stabilization, damage mitigation to endangered species in the area, and no plan to mitigate damage and disruption in the area,” Miner stated. “While DEEP officials did their best to feign contrition, the thoughtful testimony of experts and stakeholders at last week’s hearing did not receive a frog’s lick worth of consideration.”

DEEP has said the massive cutting of trees at the park that began in the fall was part of its statewide hazardous tree removal program. But the initiative was never communicated to the public, and it was only after passers-by on Route 7 saw the mounds of cut limbs piled high that the issue raised a stir.

Postings expressing anger and frustration appeared on social media, and a group called Housatonic Meadows Preservation Action was formed. State Rep. Maria Horn, D-Salisbury, and Miner were notified.

As a result of several requests, DEEP Deputy Commissioner Mason Trumble called a virtual hearing last week. At that session, he and other DEEP officials apologized for the lack of communication, but the action group’s request for a moratorium on tree cutting was turned down. DEEP representatives have said tree removals are needed because bank erosion, combined with root compaction from car and foot traffic, had made them unstable. When one fell down in the parking lot, it became a safety concern.

Will Healey, DEEP’s media relations manager, said Thursday the contractor will be working in the coming days to remove those trees that were identified on the map during the hearing. He expects the work to be completed within the next few days. Asked if the police presence would continue, he said they will be present for the duration of the removal operations to ensure the safety of visitors.

Miner said DEEP could have avoided public embarrassment had the process been handled in a more credible fashion. He said DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes spoke about an internal investigation being conducted, and he and Harding will be requesting an informational hearing when that report is released.

“My aim this year is to offer legislation that will inform this process of hazardous tree removal going forward, absent some disaster declaration from a governor,” Miner said.

On Thursday, DEEP workers were at the end of the road near the boat launch. Several Environmental Conservation police officers were behind a snow fence, making sure no one from the public went near that area.

“It’s a matter of public safety,” said Elise Bouthillier, a DEEP public information officer.

Those who came to decry the tree cutting held signs and chanted pleas. Treasa Pattison of Cornwall, who is calling herself “Tree sa” these days, had a sign that read “DEEP Shame.” She and others wore large orange paper dots over their hearts to represent the oak trees that were destroyed. Those marked for removal had large orange circles painted on their trunks.

Michael Nadeau of Sharon, a retired state-certified arborist who has been involved since the project came to light, said DEEP uses a poor set of criteria when it assesses hazardous trees.

“They don’t prune them,” he said. “They don’t use horticultural practices; they just remove them. We need to get people in DEEP to do correct assessments.”

Stuart Rabinowitz, president of Bethlehem Land Trust, added, “They took down trees that are helpful to the environment. They should be ashamed of themselves.”