With Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. build done, Otis State Forest reopens
SANDISFIELD — It wasn't too long ago that stepping into the state forest here could land you in jail.
Not anymore. After six months of pipeline construction, Otis State Forest has reopened to the public.
State Department of Conservation and Recreation spokesman Troy Wall told The Eagle that the areas of state-owned land that were off-limits during Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.'s natural gas spur build out are now open.
For six months, the area off Cold Spring Road was a maelstrom of pipeline construction and traffic, security guards, state police and anti-pipeline activists.
Now, Tennessee Gas' temporary headquarters, in a farmhouse on South Beech Plain Road, is empty. It is quiet here after a 3.8-mile section of a new, third transmission line in this corridor had consumed the town's attention for months — and even for the last four years, as the Kinder Morgan subsidiary began coming here to draw up its plans for a line the company said was needed to bolster Connecticut's gas supply.
The company has finished the Massachusetts section of its 13-mile, tri-state Connecticut Expansion Project. But for the removal of silt fencing and erosion control equipment, a bit more cleanup and a spring road overhaul, the project is done — the gas flows.
But from the beginning, the project flowed with controversy, mainly over the company expanding its existing pipeline corridor by cutting into the state forest.
There were objections on a number of grounds, and between May and November nearly 100 arrests were made in protests here, mostly for trespassing in the state forest.
This area of the state forest itself was the main area of contention. The land is part of a 900-acre purchase the state made in 2007 for $5.2 million — a deal sealed with the assistance of Mass Audubon. The state then placed the land under protection by Article 97 of the state Constitution, where it is managed by the DCR.
The remote area includes old an growth forest not far from the pipeline corridor, wetlands and Lower Spectacle Pond.
When the state purchased the land, two other transmission lines were already there: one installed in 1951, and the other in 1981.
But because the land is now protected, the state fought Tennessee Gas in court to keep the company from turning about 2 miles of it into a construction site.
While federal interstate commerce law overruled state law, the company did pay the state a settlement of $640,000 for the easement, and said it would provide another $560,000 in environmental mitigation and other work.
Wall said that, after visiting the site several times before, during and after the pipeline build, DCR officials believe that, so far, Tennessee Gas' obligations have been met.
Still, the site will be reevaluated this spring, he added, to ensure grass seed and other plant life have survived the winter. Areas that require it will be reseeded. And rocks that had to be removed from the pipeline trench will be used by DCR, in some cases to create wildlife habitat.
But environmentalists have long worried about the area. They say the healing process will be long.
"I'm glad they're opening it early enough before vernal pool season, so we can get out there to take a look at the vernal pools," said Jane Winn, the executive director of Berkshire Environmental Action Network.
Winn said she plans to go out to area and check on habitats, wetlands and erosion control. She said the pipeline company's many environmental conditions involve continued monitoring and work.
Kathryn Eiseman, executive director of Massachusetts Pipeline Awareness Network, said restoration after pipeline installation "takes years."
She said the swaths of forest that had to be cleared will have to be monitored for invasive species as it begins regrowth.
She also said Tennessee Gas isn't going away — it has a pipeline right-of-way to maintain. It has to be mowed, for instance.
"They are a permanent presence in the state forest," she said of the company.
On a recent weekday morning, the fog slowly disappearing, the roads were deserted but for Ron Bernard out walking his two dogs on Cold Spring Road.
He said he feels this permanent presence in other ways — that the project not only scarred the land, but that the months of noise, hassles and some fear has hammered his spirit.
"I'll never be the same," Bernard said. "There's a sort of sadness, as if there had been a terrible natural event. We were invaded, traumatized. We took a significant psychological hit."
Heather Bellow can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
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