If a tree falls in the watershed: Some question logging on land surrounding Northampton’s reservoirs

Last modified: Monday, March 17, 2014
WHATELY — Chris Matera of Northampton said he was driving through Whately to go skiing two weeks ago when he noticed piles of fresh-cut logs at the mouth of a trail into a forest.

“I said, Wait, isn’t that the watershed?” he recalled.

Matera, who heads a statewide group opposed to logging on publicly owned land called Massachusetts Forest Watch, was appalled to think Northampton was allowing logging on the watershed surrounding the Francis P. Ryan and West Whately reservoirs.

Since then, he has been rallying supporters and lobbying to stop the logging. Mayor David J. Narkewicz said he has received three calls and 12 emails from city residents and another 20 emails from non-residents.

But Northampton city officials defend tree-cutting on the watershed land, arguing that the carefully planned, selective cutting will improve the overall health of the forest by diversifying the age and type of trees, which will in turn be good for the city’s water supply.

“The forest captures, filters, stores and releases water into the reservoirs little by little. It’s not hard to imagine that the healthiest forest is going to do a better job,” forester Michael Mauri said while walking the Whately woods Friday.

The city hired Mauri to work with the Department of Public Works to write the 2012 Forest Stewardship Plans, which address logging and other activities in the watershed. He oversees the logging now.

But Matera argues that there is little actual evidence that silviculture, the controlled management of forests, leads to healthier woods.

“It’s just standard timber propaganda to convince people to sell their forests,” he said Friday. “They say they have to log it to help the forest, but credible peer-reviewed science says the opposite — that it’s best to leave it alone.”

David Kittredge, a professor and extension forester at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, visited the property with his timber-harvesting class Monday. While he praised the loggers’ efforts to reduce their impact on soil compaction and streams and to promote habitat for animals, he stopped short of saying the logging was helping the forest.

“What I saw Monday was a very forested area where they are taking out a nominal amount of timber and there is a lot left standing,” he said. While the logging will increase diversity there, “I can’t say it will make it healthier.”

Conflicts over whether to allow logging on public land, including state forests and watersheds, are not new in the state. Groups like Massachusetts Forest Watch fight against tree-cutting in areas around reservoirs on the grounds that it threatens water quality, is detrimental to the forest and eliminates trees that could be helping reduce carbon dioxide in the air.

In 2010, following an intense debate over whether to continue logging in the Quabbin Reservoir watershed, Gov. Deval Patrick declared a moratorium on logging there until it could be studied further. Mauri said the moratorium was lifted and logging resumed last year.

Matera said the mayor should institute a moratorium on logging on public land here and take time to reconsider whether there is science to back up the city’s Forest Stewardship Plans. Narkewicz said he turned down Matera’s request for a meeting last week, advising him instead to discuss it with the Department of Public Works.

In response to questions from city councilors, Department of Public Works officials will present details about the logging plans at the council meeting Thursday at 7 p.m.

Face-off in woods

The dispute came to a head this week after the city learned of an incident that occurred when Matera started taking photographs of the loggers Monday. He claims he was not on city property, while city officials claim that he was.*

Matera said a logger approached him and, when he learned what he was there for, started shouting and threatening him with “bodily harm.”

Whately Police Chief James Sevigne Jr. said officers visited the logger at his home Monday night as part of the still-active investigation and the man denied threatening Matera.

On Tuesday, after the logging company owner informed the city of the incident, the city’s attorney wrote an email to Matera. It referenced the altercation, and said if Matera continues to trespass on the city’s posted property, the city would take legal action. It also advised him to take up issues regarding the logging plan with the city, not the contractor.

Matera believes the email was sent Tuesday to force him to cancel a walk in the watershed he had planned for that afternoon with City Councilors Jesse Adams and Alisa Klein. Some DPW officials were aware of the walk, but Narkewicz said he did not know about it.*

Logging plan

The lengthy Forest Stewardship Plans (available online at www.northamptonma.gov/1400/watershed) were completed in 2012. The first contract to start logging was awarded to Allard Brothers Logging of Deerfield in January 2013. So far, only the forests surrounding the West Whately and Francis P. Ryan reservoirs in Whately have been logged, but work is planned to start in a small section of woods at the Mountain Street Reservoir in Haydenville in July.

The city pays the contractor to cut the trees and then gets a portion of the proceeds when they are sold as timber, pulp or firewood, said City Engineer James Laurila. But the city is losing money on logging as a whole — approximately $102,622 so far.

While it has received $46,534 from wood sales, it spent $126,358 on forestry consulting and approximately $64,800 on direct and indirect labor costs. A $42,000 Department of Conservation and Recreation grant offset some of the costs.

Forester’s view

On the side of a trail at the West Whately Reservoir, far from the area where Allard Brothers was logging, Mauri explained that the city had logged the property from approximately 1980 to 2000. But the program ended when the former city forester, Carl Davies, died.

Back then, the idea was to make money for the city to buy more land, he said.

“This is a different concept,” he said. “We plan to create a vigorous forest, and the revenue is more incidental.”

Mauri, Laurila and Northampton Senior Environmental Scientist Nicole Sanford walked with a Gazette reporter Friday through the West Whately watershed, where signs of recent logging were evident. Old cart paths or trails were widened for large machinery and new trails were cut.

The forest floor there is lined with branches and other scrap wood, called slash, that the loggers left behind because it will decompose and provide nutrients for the soil and habitat for animals.

One small clearing holds several 100-foot red oak and white pine trees that the loggers left, at Mauri’s instruction. He said the idea is to cut away many hemlocks, which are expected to die from disease, and black birch so that more sunlight is available for the rarer red oak and white pine to thrive and new trees to grow.

“We want to encourage types that are more stable and have more longevity, because right now, they can’t regenerate,” he said.

He said the trees there are mostly old and less diverse because the area was clear-cut for farming when the area was settled. When the farming ended, roughly 100 years ago, trees grew up again but were dominated by certain species.

Mauri identified stands where loggers could cut and instructed them whether to thin the ranks or create clearings, which range in size from one-third to three-quarters of an acre. He also marked off areas where loggers do not cut any trees.

At the West Whately Reservoir, loggers are cutting some trees on 20 acres, but leaving 25 acres alone, Mauri said.

He decides what areas are appropriate for cutting based on the trees, whether the land is too steep or wet and whether there are invasive species. The Mountain Street Reservoir watershed has most of those features, he said, including a big problem with the invasive species Oriental bittersweet, so logging will only take place on 4 percent of the land.

Within a few years, the areas where trees were cut will have new growth, including young trees and other vegetation, he said.

“It’s going to be fantastic,” Mauri said. “We want a forest with trees in all stages of growth and development so we’ll have a sustainable forest for decades to come.”

Mauri said diversity is the solution to many problems that can affect a forest. A homogenous forest could be severely damaged if there is a disease or pest affecting a certain species or a disastrous weather event, like an early snowstorm that takes down species of trees that lose their leaves later.

Downsides of logging

In a report Matera disseminated Tuesday, he argued that there is no need to log on the land. The reasons not to, he said, include the cost to taxpayers, the ecological impact and the potential public health risks. He pointed to studies such as one from Harvard University that say the best management approach is to do nothing because logging causes more harm to the ecosystem than it does good.

Large trucks compact soil and the creation of logging trails requires cutting down trees indiscriminately, he said.

Diesel trucks have the potential to leak near reservoirs and the plan suggests that herbicides are an option for dealing with invasive species.

“The fact that they’re even considering using herbicides there doesn’t make sense. This is our drinking water,” he said.

Laurila said the city has no plans to use herbicides in any watershed. He also pointed out that the loggers are following city instructions to minimize impact on the soil by using vehicles with tracks that spread the weight more than tires, logging when the ground is frozen and agreeing to use lighter vehicles when the ground thaws.

Matera also said that cutting trees diminishes the forest’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide, and the clearings that are created are perfect places for invasive species to take over.

Mauri agreed, but said he only suggests clearings in woods where invasives are not a problem.

Laurila said the Forest Stewardship Plan was discussed many times at public meetings when it was being drafted and he led two walks through the property to discuss the logging in November and February. But Matera said he did not know about either chance for public comment.

If the city had called the stewardship plan a logging plan, he said, people would have opposed it right away. “But it’s all couched in flowery language about how we’re going to do nice things for the forest,” he said.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

* CLARIFICATION: This story has been altered from an earlier version to reflect that Chris Matera claims he was not on city property when he visited the Whately reservoir and that some DPW officials were aware that he was planning a visit with city councilors.