Inside Outside: Tentative support for tree-huggers in Wendell 

  • Allen Young, right, Athol Daily News columnist, practices being a tree-hugger on a roadside tree with his friend Celt Grant. The photo was taken in 2005 at a Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust event in Greenfield. Photo/Diane Keijzer

  • Allen Young, right, Athol Daily News columnist, practices being a tree-hugger on a roadside tree with his friend Celt Grant. The photo was taken in 2005 at a Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust event in Greenfield. —Photo/Diane Keijzer

Published: 10/10/2018 11:55:42 PM

I embraced the label “tree-hugger” many years ago, even though many people use that term to express hostility toward committed environmentalists. For a while, I had a bumper sticker on my car that said, “Tree Hugging Dirt Worshipper.”  A little self-deprecating humor is a good thing.

So when I heard that a group of concerned residents of Wendell, dubbed the Brook Road Forest Team, was organizing to protest and halt a planned cutting of century-old oak trees in Wendell State Forest, managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), I resolved to show my support. I know what it’s like to “commune with nature” generally and also what it’s like to feel a connection with a particular tree or grove of trees.

A longtime Wendell friend, Kathy-Ann Becker, posted a comment in Facebook which I took to heart:

“Our DCR plans to cut an 80+ acre haven of centurion oaks in our Wendell State Forest that were spared from the Hurricane of 1938 that leveled so much of the rest of our forests. Can’t we treasure this one unique mature stand of oaks as our legacy? It’s a place of astounding beauty. I’ve never seen such a place of peace and awe. Since we may not be able to save theses legacy trees, perhaps you may want to consider coming and taking a walk here before these trees are boards stacked in some lumber yard for quick bucks. This stand is uniquely beautiful. I read that an oak tree can live 1,000 years. These centurions are the stump sprouts from virgin forest. Isn’t that something to think about that is wonderful?”

I support this local effort and totally understand how people can simply love these trees, but my enthusiasm waned as I looked deeper into the protesters’ message on the internet.  I think their introduction of Native American religiosity is a distraction and reeks of opportunism. Calling trees that are 100 years old “almost old growth forest” is misleading. Then, when I learned that the Wendell organizers have welcomed aboard some people from outside whom I call “environmental extremists,” my skepticism grew.

Organizations such as Massachusetts Forest Watch have alarmist websites with slogans such as “Stop the Massachusetts Chainsaw Massacre.” The organization called Restore North Woods was upset about logging in the Quabbin and launched a cockamamie campaign to turn the Quabbin into a national park. One of the leaders of this element, Chris Matera, is held in contempt by expert foresters, conservationists, and scientists specializing in forest ecology.

Extremist tree-huggers don’t want any trees cut down, reject the use of wood pellets for the heating of homes, and adhere to a dogmatic approach.

I think that a healthy, conscientious and law-abiding forest products industry, and a well-regulated use of biomass (including low-value trees) are a legitimate and valued part of the economic and social life of New England. They provides jobs, energy that is not 100% clean but is a lot better than fossil fuels, and of course wood for houses and furniture. As an environmentalist, I vociferously opposed ill-conceived projects involving Routes 2 and 32 and I went to court with neighbors   against my town to save some trees on my road, but I have been quiet, accepting and respectful when logging took place on both state and private land near my home. 

At the recent North Quabbin Garlic & Arts Festival in Orange, I encountered the dean of the local foresters, Bruce Spencer of New Salem. His career included many years as head forester of the Quabbin Reservoir land, and I served with him on the board of the Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust for many years. Bruce told me that the Wendell grove of oaks is not unusual and that  the cutting plan   is “fine,” noting that the forester who marked the trees for cutting is competent and the logger who is contracted to cut them down is the best in the state.

I asked State Rep. Susannah Whipps if she was aware of this controversy in Wendell (part of her district), and she replied by email:

“I have been working with local stakeholders and DCR to be sure the concerns of the people of Wendell are heard. I have been assured that DCR will meet with the Wendell Board of Selectmen in the upcoming weeks to hear their concerns. I believe in forest management to an extent, but I oppose harvesting old trees strictly for profit. The people in this region take great pride in being stewards of these forests and deserve to have their concerns addressed.” 

 To support the Wendell folks, I signed a petition that was circulating — already with more than 700 signers — urging the state to halt the project. I have no regrets about signing that petition because the concerns of Wendell residents who love those trees need to be addressed. That should happen with the cooperation of the town’s select board. Maybe the state can take into account the townspeople’s special devotion, and let this grove grow old, in accordance with the concept developed at Petersham’s Harvard Forest that the state should have both “woodlands” (for managed forestry) and “wildlands” guaranteeing no human interference.

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