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VIDEO Mount Tom forest mayhem has an upside — greater biodiversity



Last modified: Thursday, October 16, 2014
EASTHAMPTON — Once overshadowed by swaths of soaring, leafy-green trees, the road into Mount Tom State Reservation from Route 141 now offers sweeping vistas after last week’s microburst wreaked havoc on the mountain landscape.

Nearly a mile of Christopher Clark Road is the scene of hundreds of uprooted, snapped, twisted and downed trees and is expected to remain shut to motor vehicle traffic for the remainder of the season, according the state Department of Conservation and Recreation which maintains the 2,161-acre reservation.

Reservation Road, which runs from Route 5 in Holyoke and past Lake Bray to the visitors center on the ridgeline of the park, remains open to the public.

“It didn’t compare to the tornado, but this mountain took a beating,” said Eric Reynolds, a forest health supervisor with DCR who is overseeing the tree-clearing operation on the mountain, which began Thursday and continues daily.

Reynolds was referring to the June 2011 tornado that hit several western Massachusetts communities, including Springfield. That storm was declared a federal disaster, killed three people and left hundreds of others homeless in the region.

A four-person state crew has been working non-stop since Thursday, clearing Christopher Clark Road with a skid steer, high-powered brush chipper, aerial bucket truck and chain saws. On Monday, they were still cutting their way through a blockade of massive tree trunks, limbs and branches that crashed down and in some areas damaged the newly paved road leading from Route 141 near the Tavern on the Hill restaurant to the visitors center, where it hooks up to Reservation Road.

“We’re fortunate there weren’t a lot of power lines up here ... and houses,” Reynolds said during a pause from the work.

Below, Mountain Road (Route 141) in Easthampton reopened Friday after a similar cut-and-clear operation that involved extensive utility repair and restoration work. Three homes were significantly damaged by the downdraft of strong, straight-blowing winds at the bottom of the mountain in Easthampton in the pre-dawn hours Wednesday.

No one was seriously injured. Two motorists were trapped in vehicles on Mountain Road until emergency workers could escort them down the mountain.

DCR is advising all visitors to the Mount Tom State Reservation to be cautious of the tree damage and to not impede any cleanup work. Christopher Clark Road, which is barricaded at the visitors center and gated at Route 141, is off limits to the public likely through the end of November, said Ken Gooch, supervisor of DCR’s forest health program.

“There’s some pretty big holes in the road from where oak trees uprooted,” Gooch said.

Gooch said the first two weeks of work revolve around efforts to make Christopher Clark Road safe and open it up for workers so they can undertake a more extensive cleanup and salvage operation of trees. He said the state agency plans to salvage the wood from many of the oak trees that came down. Other trees destroyed along the mountain include maple, hickory, birch, basswood and hemlock.

Forest diversification

While the damage at the Mount Tom State Reservation is dramatic, forest experts say it bodes well for the long-term health and evolution of the forest.

“It’s a wonderful example of how our forests change,” said Paul Catanzaro, an assistant professor who teaches forest ecology and measurements in the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. “These are the kinds of events that really help us diversify our forests.”

Gooch said the Brimfield State Forest, which lost more than 50 percent of its tree canopy from the tornado in 2011 is one example of a changing forest. During the past 2½ years, more sunlight on the forest floor has brought new species into that ecosystem, including birds and other wildlife, he said.

“It is pretty amazing in 2½ years what has generated out there,” Gooch said. “There’s a whole new ecosystem. There are studies being done.”

When Christopher Clark Road reopens someday, regular hikers of the park will notice that narrow vistas along that stretch have turned into large panoramic views of the Valley and beyond. Until then, the DCR workers continue to chip away at the jumble of trees and uprooted stumps that fell along the access road like someone dropped a box of matchsticks.

As they move along, Reynolds, the supervisor on the job, said the first step for the crew is to remove broken and hanging branches and limbs so they don’t fall on the workers. Along sections they’ve already cleared, beginning near the stone crusher once used by the Civilian Conservation Corps, they have stacked oak trees for salvage. Meantime, they continue to penetrate through the tangle of trees to restore some semblance of order along a nearly mile-long stretch of Christopher Clark Road.

“We’re chipping everything we can,” Reynolds said as the loud, grinding sound of a Morbark brush chipper spit ground pieces of tree back into the forest. “Then get the road open.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.