CT Council on Environmental Quality reviewing DEEP’s tree removal policy after Housatonic Meadows complaints

February 3, 2022

Sen. Miner: “…my plan is still to work with other members of the Environment Committee to draft legislation, hold our own meeting, and make sure the shortcomings in the agency — not only noticing the public, which is a significant issue; but the whole process which, to my mind, is flawed.”


From the Register Citizen:


SHARON — The Council on Environmental Quality recently discussed the state’s process for removing hazardous trees after residents and state leaders objected to a cutting project at Housatonic Meadows State Park.


In early January, state officials held a forum to explain their procedure for the hundreds of trees, and several residents voiced concerns. After a lengthy review and discussion with officials and the public at a Jan. 26 meeting, council chairman Peter Hearn developed a list of draft recommendations for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to consider.


Primarily, the council plans to ask that if “certain tree removal operations qualify as actions that may significantly affect the environment in an adverse manner,” they should be subject to a public input process of the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act, according to minutes from the Jan. 26 council meeting.


According to state Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, who spoke against the tree cutting when it first began in November, residents complained to the Council on Environmental Quality, which in turn asked DEEP officials to meet with them. “They’re an internal watchdog group,” Miner said.


If a large stand of pine trees is marked for cutting, such as those that were cut down at Housatonic Meadows, the DEEP could explain why it chose to remove them. Trees with extensive insect infestation or damage are often marked for removal during a hazard tree project, according to the DEEP.


Miner and state Rep. Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield, recently questioned the DEEP’s hazard tree removal project at the park and campground, where nearly 200 trees were marked and cut down, starting in November and continuing in January, when the project was completed. Both said that in spite of objections to removing oak and pine trees at the park without any advance notice, they believed the agency had no intention of stopping or reconsidering the trees marked for cutting.


The DEEP is not required by law to notify anyone before it begins a project. But Miner, Harding and residents in the area said it should be, and that the procedures the agency follows should be changed to include that notification. During a Jan. 6 hearing organized by the DEEP, officials were given testimony by landscape and arbor experts who questioned how the agency decides what constitutes a hazardous tree. They also discussed the impact of removing trees along the riverbank, which can cause unwanted erosion and possible contamination. Much of that testimony was reiterated at the Jan. 26 meeting.


DEEP Deputy Commissioner for Environmental Conservation Mason Trumble apologized to the public, saying that while DEEP’s primary consideration is public safety, improvements to the actual process of deciding what trees were to be cut down was warranted. He also said external communications, such as public notices, are also warranted when removing certain trees from DEEP properties, and that public input regarding the restoration of the park was welcome.


In its recommendations, the Council of Environmental Quality also suggested the DEEP develop a restoration plan for the camping and picnic areas at Housatonic Meadows, with a cost estimate, and that a fund could be created to collect contributions for pay for the project.


The council also recommended the DEEP review its work with the Housatonic Meadows Preservation Action group and others, to explain how it designates a tree as a hazard; and to “adopt the most environmentally compatible approach.”


Miner, who plans to take a look at the DEEP’s procedures himself, said he appreciated the council’s review.


“I appreciate the council taking on the responsibility of pointing out weaknesses in the process as it currently exists,” he said. “But that doesn’t matter to me; my plan is still to work with other members of the Environment Committee to draft legislation, hold our own meeting, and make sure the shortcomings in the agency — not only noticing the public, which is a significant issue; but the whole process which, to my mind, is flawed.”


He said he’s still upset by the DEEP’s actions.


“They took down perfectly good trees,” he said. “If they went to any park or forest, they would have found some trees in the same condition. They wanted to make a point — they’re the DEEP, and they can do it.”


Alicea Charamut, speaking in her role as the executive director of the Litchfield-based Rivers Alliance of Connecticut, believes the DEEP will follow through on its promises to include the public as it does more work at Housatonic Meadows.


“But if we’re really going to meet the goals of the state that other stakeholders are setting — to maintain our ecosystem and protect our environment — the DEEP needs to think of these (projects) more holistically,” Charamut said. “I understand the DEEP’s position on public safety, but they need to look at their system from soup to nuts, as far as how they make their decisions, and look at the most current process on how we manage our trees on public lands.”


For the Rivers Alliance, buffers along the state’s rivers are critical, Charamut said.


“For stability, for erosion control; they’re so important,” she said. “The alliance spends time educating the public on how important it is to protect those buffers.