First Day Exploration of a “Young Forest Habitat” at Mount Misery

First Day Exploration of a “Young Forest Habitat” at Mount Misery

Jan. 1 dawned with temperatures in the low 30s, low hanging clouds and the occasional peeks of sunlight. My wife and I have a tradition of a hike or walk to begin the new year. “First Day” hikes are a fun tradition for many people, as evidenced by Facebook and Instagram accounts depicting pictures of folks exploring the outdoors.

I have attended first day hikes led by land trusts, and this year CT DEEP hosted hikes at nine state parks and forests. Jan. 1 also happens to be our wedding anniversary and we often head to the Rhode Island coast for a winter walk on a beach. Recent rains and days above freezing have left the ground free of snow, so we opted to hike a bit closer to home – Mount Misery at Pachaug Forest.

At only 441 ft., Mount Misery is hardly a mountain, and the walk to the top is anything but miserable. I’ve been there several times, and TLGV and the Friends of Pachaug Forest have sponsored Walktober walks there as well. Some years ago, Dan Evans, the CT DEEP Forester assigned to Pachaug, led a Walktober hike to the top of Mount Misery and along the way described the predominately oak forest habitat found throughout the park’s more than 27,000 acres.

Since that day, I have attended programs where Dan explained the significant oak tree die-off due to gypsy moth caterpillar defoliation of the trees. Folks around here know all too well the damage to beautiful oak trees because of the caterpillars. According to the Connecticut Agriculture Experiment Station Gypsy Moth Fact Sheet, by Kirby C. Stafford, III, of Department of Entomology, “In 2017, the gypsy moth outbreak was extensive and severe throughout eastern Connecticut. There were 1,170,000 acres impacted by the caterpillar, the greatest extent of defoliation since the early 1980s.”

I knew Dan had undertaken a major salvage harvest of the oaks at Pachaug, and I was curious to see the results during our first day hike.

There were other people at Pachaug when we arrived, and all were enjoying a day outdoors with family, kids and dogs. Pachaug is huge with many trails and room to spread out. We elected to do a loop walk to the top of Mount Misery, walking up Firetower Road to a parking area about 200 feet below the top. From there we went up the blue-blazed Nahantic/Pachaug Crossover trail to an amazing view from the summit of Mount Misery, and then followed the trail down through the woods to a service road parking area.

Along the road and trail many dead oak trees had been cut down to remove a safety hazard to hikers and vehicles. When we got near the top, just to the east of the service road was a large patch cut of several acres that only five years ago had been full of healthy scarlet and black oak trees. Only a few surviving trees were left to serve as seed trees to help regenerate the forest. This large plot will now be new forest habitat, and it will be interesting to see how it proceeds over the years.

When I returned home, I sent Dan an email to get his insights on the salvage harvest of the oak trees and his thoughts on the long-term goals for the forest following such a massive loss of oaks due to the caterpillars. Here is his response to me about the harvest at Pachaug.

“I’m glad you liked the look of the developing young forest in the Mount Misery area. It was quite a change aesthetically, but as you know, we were left with very few options as upwards of 90 percent of the dominant oaks on the site succumbed to the three successive years of defoliation by gypsy moth caterpillars (2015, 2016, 2017). The forest operation plan prescribing a 30-acre irregular shelterwood harvest, and roadside hazard tree mitigation was approved by CT DEEP in 2017. The harvest was intended to create suitable conditions for the development of a new age-class of trees while retaining a low-density of mature trees to provide for added seed-distribution, forest structure and carbon storage. More specifically, we’re trying to promote regeneration from shade-intolerant and intermediate tolerance species which are not sustaining themselves under current conditions. These are generally oaks, and pines. An additional emphasis in the Mount Misery area is enhancing conditions for the natural reproduction of pitch pine. As you likely saw, there’s a residual pitch pine seed source throughout the stand, and a handful of seedlings have been observed as a result of harvesting. Given the residual seed source of pitch pine and white pine, along with the advanced oak reproduction, which was present in the understory, we anticipate an oak-pine mixture with some representation from pitch pine on the driest portions of the site. Even with these forest-centric, tree reproduction goals we’ve introduced a new patch of structural young forest habitat for wildlife. Over 50 species of greatest conservation need identified in the State’s Wildlife Action Plan utilize young forest habitat. We’re hoping that the dry grounds and temporarily open conditions near the top of Mount Misery create suitable habitat opportunities for declining species like Whip-Poor-Will – a perpetual Natural Diversity Database occurrence in the Mount Misery area. The project also removed over 300 hazard trees from Firetower road. Accomplished through the commercial timber sale, the hazard tree removal work in this area occurred at no cost to the taxpayers. Gypsy moth and drought impacts are among the most severe in the State. Change is happening out there whether we like it or not. In forestry, it’s our job to facilitate change in positive ecological directions, for both the future of the forest and the people who enjoy it.”

I look forward to returning to Pachaug and Mount Misery each year to see how the regeneration of the oak forest is progressing. Despite the tragic mortality of so many oaks, our region’s forests will grow back as they always do. One-hundred-and-fifty-years-ago, southern New England was more than 70 percent cleared land. With the decline in agriculture, what had been open land for pasture and crops began the slow process of growing back, and today our region is now 77 percent forested. The regeneration of our forest is a great ecological success story, and we get to witness it again at Pachaug Forest.

For information on the Pachaug State Forest including maps and all the amenities go to the CT DEEP State Parks and Forests website at:

https://portal.ct.gov/DEEP/State-Parks/Forests/Pachaug-State-Forest-Chapman-Area

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. We are fortunate to have large forests and parks like Pachaug available to us to explore and revel in the magnificence of our natural world. I hope you’ll join me as we enjoy, care for and pass on this special place.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in and explored the region for 40 years and can be reached at bill@tlgv.org

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