Simsbury, CT: On Monday April 17 the Town of Simsbury, the Simsbury Land Trust, the Canton Land Conservation Trust and the Farmington River Watershed Association cosponsored a regional forum titled “The Future of Our Forests: Stewarding Our Lands Thoughtfully.” More than 80 attendees representing surrounding towns, organizations and land trusts gathered in the Simsbury Library Program Room. Catering byKane’s Market was donated by Keep the Woods.

The program featured Ed Faison, Senior Ecologist at Highstead — a Redding, Connecticut-based organization affiliated with the Harvard Forest in Massachusetts. Faison holds a PhD in wildlife biology and approaches forest stewardship in southern New England from a historical and scientific perspective. Highlighted topics were forest fragmentation, native and non-native species, old growth forest and habitats in decline, and stewardship options that consider environmental concerns, financial resources and community values.

Faison noted that throughout New England a forest is the natural, self-organizing condition. Forests in Connecticut declined starting in the year 1600 and dropped rapidly to below 40% by 1850. Forest species were reduced, and grassland and shrubland species increased – some moving here from the Midwest. Farm abandonment in the late 1800s resulted in natural forest regrowth, and the period from 1870-1980 was called“the great rewilding.” Shrubland and young forest increased dramatically with farm abandonment in the late 19th and early 20th century, but quickly declined as old fields reverted to forest. Many Eurasian ornamentals – “invasives” such as Japanese Barberry, Oriental Bittersweet and Multi-flora Rose – were introduced during the period of farm abandonment.. Faison noted that some invasives do provide habitat, but when they reach a high density they reduce biodiversity and outcompete native species. (Note: according to research at UCONN, increased density of Japanese Barberry is associated with a high population of Lyme-disease carrying ticks, a public health concern). However Faison suggested that removing invasives is not always pragmatic– it canrequire constant “gardening” in the forest – and it should be determined by an on-site evaluation and by resources and priorities. Faison also does not necessarily recommend removing diseased or damaged trees: even if they result from non-native pests these trees provide valuable habitat, woody debris and biodiversity; removing them disturbs the soil, facilitates erosion and can introduce more and different invasives.

Faison does however recommend documenting and monitoring the forest and considering community values when making decisions about stewarding a natural area. Dedicated plots can be monitored scientifically when possible, and “photopoints” – repeated photographs taken from the same location – are a very simple and inexpensive monitoring strategy. Rare habitats are particularly important, and because of the history of theland “old growth forest” is now less than 0.05% of the forested area. However some areas of second growth forest (after farm abandonment) are well on their way to old growth status. Faison stressed that the essence of wilderness can be experienced even now in a forest with mature trees that feels “wild” and undamaged by humans. Faison also dispelled the myth that old growth forest is dark and impenetrable: it is structurally and biologically very diverse, with some very large trees and large canopy gaps where old trees died and created light and space for vigorous regeneration. Old growth forest is also wetter and stores (and continues to accumulate) large amounts of carbon both above and below the ground.

Habitats for specific wildlife were addressed and of interest to the attendees: old growth forest is ideal for species with limited mobility, and unfragmented forest is at least as important as old growth: a large block of continuous forest is essential for the survival of species that are vulnerable to disturbance and predation. For example, a fragmented forest hosts a lower abundance of at least 25 forest songbirds and an increasedabundance of “edge” species (particularly predators like raccoons, opossums, crows, cowbirds) and Lyme- disease carrying ticks. Faison also noted that some species now listed as declining here in Connecticut are common species with a wide geographic range – they moved in during deforestation and are here now in higher than naturally occurring numbers. He suggested we should be most concerned about native species that are in decline and need a specific type of habitat. In addition to the decline of forest songbirds, one example of a native, habitat-dependent species is the New England cottontail – it prefers young forest, thickets, edges and fields. The good news is that several cottontail areas exist and others have been createdrecently (often termed a “bunny-cut”) in the Farmington Valley.

Taken together, Faison suggested using resources and habitat as a guide for management decisions: unless there is a different goal for a forest, or a significant problem with invasives, the most environmental and economical strategy is to allow forest to continue self-organize: ongoing maintenance requires chronic disturbance and intervention. The landscape changes naturally over time, and interventions always benefit some species and harm others. Areas maintained as another habitat now can most economically continue as such – or rotate among grassland, shrubland and young forest. Isolated patches could be considered for conversion to the surrounding habitat to improve overall benefits and streamline maintenance. And decisions for public land should be considered in the context of community values: he has never heard someone walk inthe woods and complain about “too many trees.”

At the end of his presentation Faison posed a critical question to the audience: Is ‘let nature take its course’ – i.e. no specific “management” – an acceptable option? The good news from both an economic and an environmental perspective is that the answer is YES: the forested state is how nature self-organizes in this region, and this option represents working with nature. Furthermore, if the community goal for an area is a natural area for enjoyment and passive recreation (and not a different priority, such as maintaining a specific type of habitat) less intervention is environmentally responsible and saves time and money. Monitoring and safety are always essential, and while his presentation provided options and ideas he emphasized that additional management decisions for public forests should be up to the community.

In the near future Simsbury will be embarking on a town–wide open space management plan. By the end of the night the Forest Forum provided a lot of ideas and guiding principles for thoughtful decisions that could benefit the entire region.

Diagram from McCarthy, BC (1995). Eastern old growth forests.