by Emery Gluck, Forester, Cockaponset State Forest.
(Feb. 16, 2021) — Cockaponset State Forest is Connecticut’s second-largest state forest with almost 17,000 acres in 11 towns. Like many forests in the state, Cockaponset has recently experienced a glut of oak and ash mortality. Oaks have been impacted by the 2016 drought and several years of Gypsy Moth defoliation. Stressed oaks attract secondary damaging agents such as two-lined chestnut borer and shoestring root rot, which often puts the nails in their coffin. Ash have been severely impacted by the exponential population growth of non-native Emerald Ash Borer (EAB).
Figure 1 Woodpeckers have flecked off the outer bark (which can be seen on the ground) of this ash to get to the EAB. These partially debarked ash are referred to as “blonded ash” Photo Emery Gluck.
As the trees die, they become a liability along roads, parking areas and places where people congregate. Deadfalls killed at least two people in Connecticut last year. To reduce the risk to the public, Forestry and Park staff, a Forestry volunteer, tree removal contractors and loggers have felled over 800 hazard trees in Cockaponset State Forest. Some of the logs have been trucked to the DEEP sawmill in Portland where they are turned into boards for picnic tables and for other projects in the State Parks and Forests. Other logs have been sold to loggers and local sawmills. The wood too small or crooked for timber can be purchased by the public for $50 for a 2.5 cord permit.
Even before the recent infestations, oak populations were declining as oak forests are not sustaining themselves under current natural conditions. This is a huge ecological concern. Oaks replaced American chestnut as our forest’s keystone species after the Chestnut Blight. Oaks are keystone species as:
- Acorns provide the most nutritious plant-based protein for almost 90 species of wildlife.
- Oaks overwhelmingly host the most species of moths and caterpillars (over 500 for all the species of oak) which is extremely important for birds.
- Oak forests have more bird abundance and diversity when compared to maple forests
- Oak forests are less prone to being overrun by non-native invasive plants than other forest types.
The main reason oaks rarely sustain themselves in our time is that their seedlings die out or stagnate in the shade.
Figure 2 The largest oak grew in full sunlight, was 66 years old and almost 3′ in diameter at the stump level when it died on the author’s land. The smallest oak grew in the shade of the understory and is approximately 40 years old and is less than 2” in diameter. Most overstory oaks in Cockaponset are approximately 120 years old. Photo by Emery Gluck.
Figure 3 Understory oak from the author’s land. Photo by Emery Gluck.
Deer’s preference to feeding on oak seedlings compounds the problem even if there is a burst of sunlight after a disturbance such as mortality from infestations, windfall, or a harvest. Deer browse was not such a problem before 1990 when their population was lower. With deer pressure and shade, less palatable and shade tolerant saplings such as birch and beech have now become entrenched in most of the forest.
Oak forests were historically sustained by frequent forest fires, clear cuts, and abandonment of agricultural field. Native Americans and settlers burned the forest frequently in part to make it more habitable for themselves, game animals and livestock as well as other reasons. Without frequent fires, the forest has become much denser as an overabundance of shade-tolerant fire-sensitive species have filled in. These less ecological valuable trees are poised to take over as oak die out in the overstory.
Figure 4 Shade tolerant beech saplings (with leaves) dominate the understory in an oak stand. Given the current trajectory, oaks will likely not be part of the future stand. Though global warming is expected to make Connecticut more suitable for oaks, it is improbable that the understory will become open enough for oaks to be sustained without active management. Photo by Emery Gluck.
Forest management in Cockaponset State Forest emphasizes promoting upland ecosystems and species that are dependent upon understory and overstory disturbances for their long-term survival. They are promoted by providing disturbances similar to those that have historically sustained them. Some ecologists view aboriginal management activities (including their use of fire) as part of the historic natural disturbance regime of an area. Since reintroducing widespread fire is not practical in this landscape, on-going forest management includes judicious cutting of small and large trees and some prescribed fires.
Figure 5 The fire-line of a 113 acre 2016 low intensity prescribed fire to promote oak seedlings north of Pattaconk Reservoir is patrolled by Cockaponset’s 1967 bombardier. It is outfitted with water tanks, hose, and a pump. In 1905, the State Legislature charged the State Forester with suppressing all wildfires. Over 30,000 acres burned annually during the early 1900’s.. Killingworth is 22,912 acres for comparison. Fire equipment is stationed at several State Forests and Parks. Photo by Andy Annino.
The management is helping repopulate other shade-sensitive trees that have been dropping out of the forest as they reach the end of their life span, or as they are dying after being over-topped by taller trees. Pitch pine, aspen, gray birch, black cherry and the occasional white birch and red cedar are very uncommon in the maturing forest but have offspring growing in recently managed parts of Cockaponset that were harvested and/or burned and tended.
Pitch pine (a.k.a. candlewood) is particularly vulnerable. It is estimated that 95% of Connecticut’s pitch pine/scrub oak sand plains, one of Connecticut’s 13 imperiled ecosystems, have been lost to development. The rest is threatened by overtopping trees, absence of new generations and the Southern Pine Beetle. Cockaponset only has about 5 acres of Pitch pine.
Figure 6 72 year old Vietnam vet volunteer Steve Lowery tending pitch pine saplings that seeded in on Pine Ledge after a skidder uprooted the mountain laurel and the author felled the hardwoods. Pitch pine seed need somewhat exposed soil as a seed bed. Steve is thinning out pitch pine so the remaining pines retain ample live crown to remain healthy enough to pitch out low level infestations of the Southern Pine Beetles. Photo Emery Gluck
Approximately half of Cockaponset is passively managed with mortality from windthrow, defoliations, drought and succession shaping the forest. The combination of active and passive management provides a complimentary mix of wildlife habitat.
Thinnings and initial regeneration harvests create canopy gaps that encourage dense regeneration and provide habitat suitable for numerous forest birds including Black and white warbler, Black-throated blue warbler, Eastern wood pewee, Veery, Wood Thrush, and Red eyed vireo.
Figure 7 This winter’s initial shelterwood harvest north of Pattaconk Reservoir (seen in the background) to promote oak regeneration and habitat for the above-mentioned birds. Audubon Connecticut recommends leaving at least 2 cords/ acres of down wood and logging slash for insect habitat and bird perches. The lean-to by the water was constructed with softwood timber cut from state lands, sawn at the DEEP sawmill, and constructed by DEEP Park Staff Andy Annino of Killingworth, Seth Jackson and Dave Buckley, both of Haddam. Youth group lean-to camping by permit only. Photo by Emery Gluck.
The harvest in Figure 7 is under contract with Perma Treat Corporation of Durham, which make railroad ties and had won the competitive bid. The father and son team of Jerry and Jeremy Bellows of Gibson Hill Forest Products are the logging contractors. Jerry is a former “Game of Logging” regional champion in the tree-felling competition. His son outdid him last year to become the current champion. The firewood has been sold log truck length to Jack Wiese of Haddam and John Lindner of Chester who process the wood and sells it retail.
Jerry thinned this same stand 20 years ago. The thinning gave the best trees “breathing room” so they could be put on more growth and produce more acorns. In a different part of the stand, the harvest Jerry did was a heavy regeneration harvest that only left a few older trees per acre to promote a new generation of shade-sensitive oaks.
Figure 8 This uncommon small pole stand seeded in 20 years ago after Jerry harvested the previous stand. The white oak (with leaves) was released by the forester by cutting the surrounding overtopping black birches and should now make it to maturity. Photo Emery Gluck.
For the 10 years after that harvest, an extremely valuable young forest habitat, which are among the most under-represented upland habitat, had developed. Young forest habitat provides critical habitat for:
Image courtesy of the Wildlife Division
Young forest habitat is important for its dense brushy structure, nesting and feeding opportunities. New forests are continuously needed to be created for this ephemeral habitat to remain on the landscape.
Figure 9 Young forest habitat developing after a 6 year old patch cut off Old County Road. Oaks (with leaves) and pitch pine are thriving. The latter were seeded by young tour participants from cones the forester collected and opened after the harvest and a 2016 prescribed burn. Photo Emery Gluck.
Forest management increases flowering plants that are used by pollinators. It also plays an important role in carbon sequestration (the process of removing carbon from the atmosphere) and storage (the amount of carbon stored). Carbon sequestration rates are generally greater in younger forests (20- 70 years old) and carbon storage is generally greater in older forests. Forest management transfers carbon stored in live trees into durable woods products. This creates favorable conditions for the removal of additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by promoting additional tree growth. The use of durable wood product from well managed forests instead of more energy-intensive materials such as concrete, steel and carpet, lessens society’s carbon footprint.
Forest management is the most economical way to promote biodiversity in upland forests. With sustained management, Cockaponset State Forest should continue to be a great ecological and recreational asset for this area.