Inside the debate over timber-cutting on one state forest tract in Northern Berkshire

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FLORIDA — When Stanley L. Brown was a boy in the late 1930s, sweet things drew him to meadows a few miles from the family homestead in the town of Florida.

"That was pretty much open, and we would go there and pick blackberries," he says of a big patch of land. Streams trickled south toward Cold River high in Northern Berkshire.

To Brown's mother, this berry-laden tract was the "Jackson place," name-checking a family on South County Road. Their land rose north toward Flat Rock Hill, about a mile short of the lookout tower on Whitcomb Summit.

Today, the land's owner, the commonwealth of Massachusetts, wants to cut trees in the area of the Jackson place, one of a handful of yearly Berkshire County timber projects led by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The sales come at a time when a bill before the Legislature proposes to ban logging in state forests. That measure faces a hearing Tuesday.

Brown remembers this landscape before the trees came back. At 85, he is one of Florida's memory keepers. When asked about the old Jackson place, now a sliver of the sprawling Florida State Forest, Brown thinks of his hometown's origins.

"The greatest asset as people came in here was the forest," Brown says, referring to Florida's post-Colonial settlement in the early 1800s. "They cut the forest off for the firewood and the charcoal."

And when better farmland beckoned to the west, many moved on, leaving fields and pastures to grow back.

Two centuries after New England leveled its forests, the question of whether to cut trees on public land gets far more scrutiny. This past month, more than two dozen people were arrested while trying to stop logging in the Wendell State Forest.

Recently, when DCR foresters arrived on South County Road for a public viewing of the timber sale, a trek through the stand became a running debate with their critics. Do forests need people to manage them? Is it wise to lose mature trees most able to trap and hold carbon to ease global warming?

The DCR's lead forester on the project, Kevin Podkowka, returned later to guide loggers through the tract. The Eagle joined both trips to hear competing visions for 83 acres of publicly owned land.

Bids to remove 179,151 board feet of timber and 273 cords of firewood from state forest off South County Road came due last month. That volume of saw timber would fill 36 average-size logging trucks.

To cut or not?

One afternoon in early May, cars swung off Route 2 near the Florida village of Drury and made their way west for about a mile and a half on a dirt road, through the landmark Oleson farm and past small homes on lots shaded by thick woods.

Podkowka and his boss, William Hill, waited near a bridge over a Cold River tributary, their white DCR trucks crowding narrow South County Road. Hill stood near a cutout across from the acres of trees that Podkowka had spent months marking in blue: horizontal lines for saw timber, vertical lines for firewood, dots for trees that can be taken but aren't part of the sale. In all, the sale involved 1,092 trees for timber, 2,384 for firewood and 556 deemed valuable for pulp.

"Our purpose today is to show you which trees will be cut and how the wood will be moved through the forest," Hill tells a half-dozen people, including some involved in the long effort to stop timber harvests in the Wendell State Forest and on other public lands.

Hill is a veteran of the morality play these tours can become. "When logging takes place, that gets people's attention," he says.

This is Podkowka's project, so the script calls for him to explain why the state wants to cut here. The reasons are detailed in his 21-page "silviculture prescription."

As in other state forests, the Norway spruce planted in rows on open land nearly a century ago — it was part of an effort to reforest New England — aren't doing well. The spruce are of "poor form," the forester has written, and of "low vigor."

Podkowka's plan calls to open up three clearings in the roughly 6-acre spruce plantation within the tract to provide growing space for native hardwood trees that have crept in.

Up where the spruce dominate, a five-minute walk in off the road, the needle-covered ground, unyieldingly brown, is littered with fallen branches and wind-thrown trees. The ferns that play across most of the forest floor haven't penetrated here.

About half the Norway spruce on this tract — 312 trees, by the forester's count — would be cut. The rest would be felled years from now, if ever.

Down on the road, the two foresters face a civil audience, but far from a friendly one. Black flies start biting. Podkowka soldiers through his briefing. He mentions "uneven age stand structure," a reference to the fact that, aside from seedlings managing to get a start beneath the canopy, most of the trees are well-established. Current thinking in forestry favors a greater age range; people who believe forests should be protected from human interference see that as pretense for cutting.

Podkowka's plan lists the stand as "young mature." That's a seeming oxymoron until you think of the Norway spruce, an "exotic" nonnative tree planted by the tens of thousands during the Great Depression, as "old mature."

The Civilian Conservation Corps came through here many years ago. And it has been even longer since people cut on this lot. Podkowka says he found no evidence of logging since the land became state forest.

Here and there, mossy stone walls mark edges of what used to be fields, some of the walls just 300 feet off South County Road. Podkowka's map identifies a few cellar holes of former homes — but there aren't many. A state archaeologist's survey found no significant cultural objects to preserve.

Hill, a veteran of these tours, says one goal of uneven age management is to save as many large trees as possible. On this afternoon, at an event he is required to convene, Hill is making the state's case to cut, regardless of whether he'll change minds. People gathered around cars exchange looks.

Hill knows one of them, Glen Ayers, of Greenfield, from face-offs over timber-cutting. Ayers, a retired health official wearing a blue EMS vest, asks how the DCR's plan to cut trees in this section of the Florida State Forest will affect carbon sequestration. In photosynthesis, trees take in carbon dioxide, trapping that greenhouse gas, and release oxygen. Much of the carbon is stored in growing trees. Podkowka says the carbon equation was not calculated for this sale. More looks.

"What's the impact? We want to find out," Ayers says. "That's what we're here to know."

An acquaintance, Miriam Kurland, of Goshen, is listening and taking notes. "We need the carbon mitigation urgently," she says.

Hill tackles the issue head-on.

"There is no argument that our removing trees from this site removes carbon storage," he says. Then he cites what he sees as benefits. People who build things gain access to wood. And the cutting makes the forest more resilient, he argues, as new openings in the canopy allow for regeneration of trees. Hill tries to head off speculation about use of wood from the big hillside as biomass fuels. The "prescription" is to channel trees for saw timber and firewood.

"We don't take any steps to provide biomass to the market," Hill says. "We just don't put up timber sales for biomass."

And he wants it known that his agency accepts scientific evidence of global warming.

Ayers and others express concerns that the state will change designations for its state forests and allow more cutting. To the southwest, starting just a few hundred yards away, parts of the same state forest are listed as reserves.

Ayers keeps track of DCR activity and notes that there are workarounds on some of its forest designations.

"We're already cutting in reserves," he says. Like others here, he questions the state's timber program.

"What do the nonaction alternatives look like?" he asks. No one answers. "If a forest hasn't been managed for 100 years, why come in and manage it now? This kind of forest belongs in a museum," Ayers says.

Into the woods

Though a snowmobile trail marks the western boundary of the cut, the group plunges into the woods by parting low branches, east of an unnamed stream, and begins to climb. The land rises steadily toward Flat Rock Hill, through mixed stands of hardwood and softwood.

Red oak and red maple are everywhere, along with yellow and white birch and American beech, a species hit hard by a bark disease. The cutting plan calls for the winning bidder to spend about $7,000 just to combat American beech by spraying young trees with herbicide, either on their leaves or through "hack and squirt," a technique in which licensed pesticide applicators chop openings in the base of a tree whose foliage they can't reach and hose in a solution that's half glyphosate, an ingredient in the herbicide Roundup.

To prepare for the sale, Podkowka has ranged through the lot, marking which trees would be cut and which are to remain.

The debate over the need to cut at all continues, led mainly by Ayers, as people pick their routes up the slope.

Rema Loeb, of Plainfield, quiet until now, steps close to Hill. She is using a walker to help her on the uneven ground. "The purpose for my being here is to look out for my children and grandchildren," she tells Hill. "We want to give you public input because these are our forests."

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"This forest will never not be a forest," Hill says. "The activity we will do here will not destroy this forest."

Trees here will continue to catch and hold carbon, Hill says, the process known as sequestration.

"Show us the numbers," Ayers replies.

Off to the left, close to the edge of a slight ravine that carries the stream, Ayers spots a "field tree." Podkowka had seen it earlier, and it earned a mention in his prescription. It is one of the oldest trees on the hillside. Because it grew up when the land was clear, its branch network is wide and full, low limbs closer to level with the ground.

People are stepping over the spring ground cover and avoiding branches, each following his or her own path, as Hill and Podkowka lead the way up, twigs breaking underfoot.

Podkowka is explaining why he marked the trees he did, following DCR protocol for cuts like this. One factor before he sprays trunks is to consider how a tree will fall. He says he avoids marking trees that, when cut, would damage the trees he wishes to preserve. His cutting plan calls for trees to be felled by hand with chain saws, not with the mechanized harvesters that can scar surrounding trees.

"Overall the stand is healthy and this project is intended to ensure that this continues," Podkowka wrote in the final version of his forest plan.

The group passes through groves of red oak, with some of the best trees unmarked. Unlike the regimentation of the Norway spruce plantation's acres, most of the forest is what nature and weather fashioned after people left the land: winners and losers in the battle for sunlight. Gaps from wind-thrown trees and ice damage. Trees and limbs down and rotting, releasing their carbon in the leaf litter. Bunches of serviceberry, hobblebush and Canada mayflower.

People step around circles of deer scat. Bear and moose regularly cross these acres.

Podkowka's plan goes to war with beech but seeks to encourage growth of sugar maple and other native trees like birch, black cherry, aspen and oak.

Deep in the tract, the tour has broken into knots of people walking and talking. Podkowka has said his piece. The full case for cutting, including steps to improve wildlife habitat, increase biodiversity and "improve recreational experiences," lies in DCR documents he emails later to members of the tour. Hill has another appointment and makes his way back to the road.

But, given who has joined Podkowka in the woods, the questions hang heavy.

"I believe sincerely in what I'm doing and believe I'm doing a good job," Podkowka says. For the state, it isn't about money, he insists.

"We're not driven by economics at all," he says. But he acknowledges that a project must pay for itself.

Erik Burcroff, of Plainfield, having walked half a mile up the hill, says privately that he isn't convinced that loggers need to come onto this public land to achieve a public good.

"I'm back to being horrified about how so-called state forests are being managed. My vision is, let it do its thing," he says.

Another member of the public, Dennis Carr, wants to hear more.

"Let's talk. Let's have dialogue and figure this out," he says. "We need to figure this out. We can find agreement, even if we're coming from wildly different places."

Enter the logger

Two months later, Podkowka is back on South County Road, this time waiting for loggers interested in seeing what the state is putting up for sale. An earlier showing didn't result in much interest.

"I'm still having a hard time getting it to take," he says of the sale. "There may not be enough hardwood for the hardwood guys and not enough softwood for the softwood guys."

He feels he's racing the clock on insect damage to trees that reduces the wood's market value. "You go from saw timber to firewood. That's a significant drop."

Then again, it could be that loggers still are catching up with work delayed by the wet summer of 2018, which all but ruined the turnip crop here in Florida. Or that the DCR sales tend to do better closer to the New York line, since that state has a more active logging trade.

For a new round, the state drops the requirement of hand-felling. On July 25, just one man, Randy Stone, shows up to walk roughly the same route through the woods. He is representing Allard Brothers, a lumber company in the Franklin County town of Whately. The state doesn't like to sell to outfits that haven't walked a tract up for bid. Stone says there's a good reason for that. You need to get a feel for the land, especially its slopes, and what it means to maneuver machines through what can be rock-strewn areas laced with streams.

"It's important for someone who's looking at it as a buyer," Stone says. The state's logging contract carries stipulations about how the job is carried out, including regular monitoring by the forester who marked the site. Stone makes it plain that hand-cutting dampened interest. He has heard it said that the average age of loggers in Massachusetts is 55.

"If it weren't for the mechanized, they wouldn't be doing it anymore. It's safer and more efficient," Stone says.

Podkowka says he had little choice but to allow use of machines.

"It's not ideal for what I wanted, but I can make it work," he says.

Stone and Podkowka take roughly the same route up the hillside as Podkowka and Hill did in May. Tagging along this time is Ben VanHeynigen, of Chester, a University of Massachusetts senior working a DCR summer job.

This time, the tour is about landing a bidder.

"If you have time, show me the things that are significant," Stone tells Podkowka.

"I'm here to be sure you get everything you need," the forester says.

They walk a meandering route up the hill, through low patches of fern that have Stone, an expert in that plant, making identifications. The fronds, little waving arrows, point every which way.

Ahead stands a big white pine. Stone says it would fetch good money on the wood market, but it carries no blue paint. Podkowka says he considered it too ecologically valuable to the stand to cut.

Ditto for a big hemlock they pass later.

"It does much better in the landscape than it does in the woodpile," Podkowka says.

But he's not feeling any love for all the beech. Any beech that measures less than 12 inches in diameter is free, he tells Stone.

The bid deadline of Aug. 8 isn't far away. Podkowka's bidding documents, for Permit No. NBK-01-18-T, includes sample wording. "I hereby bid $_______ for the aforedescribed forest products ." That language appears on the last page of the sale prospectus.

And this is on the first: "The Bureau of Forestry reserves the right to reject any or all bids."

After having worked on this timber sale since at least 2016, Podkowka gets his breaking news after 2 p.m. Aug. 8.

One bid comes in. But the amount offered falls below the state's minimum. So, for now, the 4,032 trees that Podkowka sprayed with blue paint, along with the free beech and other trees that would have fallen to make way for skid roads, will remain.

"We are now exploring our options on how best to improve the attractiveness of the sale and it will be re-advertised in the future," Podkowka said this month by email.

The DCR declined to release a copy of the bid it received. A public records request submitted by The Eagle is pending.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.


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