Monday, February 25, 2019

Watching and waiting

What a weird season of weather. A little snow, ice, sleet, a lot of rain, freeze and thaw, all in the same day!
We took advantage of a recent warm afternoon to take a little hike into Hoffman Preserve. As reported in other posts (here and here), the Hoffman Evergreen Preserve is a very special place, beloved by many and quite unique in its forest makeup. It has also succumbed to the ravages of old age, disease and infestations over the last decade. The results are dead and dying trees throughout much of the preserve, creating a danger for hikers, and an almost sterile habitat with little wildlife diversity. A plan is underway to restore the forest health, which will likely take years, but the work is beginning.
On this day, we walked into the quiet woods, after we had had snow and sleet the night before. Much of the snow elsewhere had melted, but in the darker areas of the wood, it remained. The hardened trails with frozen ground had a layer of ice, topped with snow, topped with inches of water in many places. Good footwear was essential, and from the look of the footprints in some areas, the conditions didn’t deter everyone.
Informing the public is so important to a project like this.

The slushy trails apparently did not deter dedicated hikers.

Trees continued to crack and fall throughout the winter, making it hard for stewards to keep up.

An expert's eye

We knew the professional forester had been in to begin his work of assessing the forest more closely. He is literally checking each tree for its health, its potential benefit to the forest, and marking it for removal if he felt that by doing so, it would be a better option. I was able to walk with the forester earlier in the project, and we wandered off trails, looking at several examples of how he was choosing his trees. There are some that definitely need to go: these are the dead and dying oaks. Over these last years, so many have been stressed, to death, by conditions of insect infestation and drought. Many have fallen already. There may be some use for the wood if they are removed now, and it will also make the forest safer. Many hemlocks are marked for removal because many of them are also dead, and if not, they are crowding others which are healthier and show promise. It is our hope that we can support the evergreen appearance and habitats in the preserve.
Trees to preserve are those that offer greater benefit to wildlife: White Oaks, Hickories, Beech. These provide nuts and seeds. These will also be the parent trees for the next generations of seedlings that will grow in the new openings. We will also be keeping some of the dead trees, if they are off the trailed areas, as these will provide an important element for the health of the new forest. The dead trees will provide places for insects to dwell, inviting birds, especially woodpeckers, to forage and to nest. Larger holes will be great denning areas for several species of mammals, including the three species of squirrels we have in the area. When trees fall, they continue to serve an important purpose as shelter for many other species of creatures. Woody debris on the ground will restore nutrients to the earth.
As we walked the areas first marked, the blue trail heading south and the yellow trail, we took note of the trees, the healthy ones, the sick ones, the crowded ones. We looked at the very barren understory areas. We heard no birds at all. Only in one area, close to the edge of the woods, did we see the footprints of a lone deer. Only one on the whole hike.
Dead trees remain valuable for wildlife of all kinds, as long as they are away from the trails.

Trees show several kinds of marks, each with specific meaning to the forester.

Areas near special features or wetlands have been flagged to remain undisturbed. 

By thinning the hemlocks here, those still alive will have room to grow and bring back the lovely green feeling we love.

Hike with care

The preserve is still open for hiking while this phase of preparation is underway. It is an interesting education to observe and understand the process leading up to the actual work. We invite you all to hike, learn, and take note. It will be a disruption this spring, no doubt. All the rain this winter has made the ground too wet to try and bring in big equipment . Frozen solid ground is good, but the thaw will bring more mud. We are not sure when the heavy work will begin.
As the next seasons progress, the greening of summer will help cover some of the scars, and the sun will enter the woodlands as it hadn’t been able to for so long. I am looking forward to that sun for so many reasons.
I hope many of those who love Hoffman will join us in documenting the renewed life there. But first, we have to get past this crazy winter.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

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