The Kindest Cut
By Roger Witherspoon
The Journal News (Westchester County, NY)
September 26, 2003 Friday
SAVING THE FOREST FROM THE TREES
The Journal News
A 415-acre tract of state forest around Nimham Mountain in Kent has been targeted
by state and New York City environmental agencies for development as a model
Up to 60 percent of trees in some sections of the forest would be cut down as part of
the demonstration logging project. If the project is shown to be economically
successful and environmentally beneficial to the forest's overall health, officials and
environmental groups hope it will provide an incentive for private landowners to keep
more than 600,000 acres of forests in the New York City watershed as permanent
forest habitat, rather than selling them for commercial development.
"Forest management, if done properly, is an excellent way to have an economic
return on the land without damaging the environment," said Jim Tierney, the state's
watershed inspector general. "The goal is to convince local owners of forests to
provide conservation easements to the state that the land will only be used for
forestry purposes, as opposed to another mall or subdivision spread out over the
The plan also would prevent the maturation of an unbroken, old-growth forest
stretching across the region from Connecticut to the New Jersey border. The
extensive use of herbicides will remove several acres of Japanese barberry and other
invasive shrubs that clog the forest floor and prevent the development of open
glades and the growth of young native tree seedlings.
The project, to begin in May, calls for construction of up to two miles of logging
roads on Coles Mills Road and other pathways through the state-owned land, and
unpaved "skid trails" for dragging cut trees through the forest to processing areas.
The roads, to be built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will use bridges and
other systems designed to minimize the impact on streams and wetlands in the
center of the Hudson Highlands.
"The logging is just a means to an objective," said Jeff Wiegert, supervising forester for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "Forest management promotes the growth of the biggest and best trees, and there is removal of the wood which isn't as hardy. The focus here is on water quality, and managing the forest
properly improves the quality of the watershed."
The demonstration forest, one of four being developed on state-owned land, is a
combined project of the state DEC, the New York City Department of Environmental
Protection and the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science
and Forestry in Syracuse. The plan has the backing of many environmental groups
seeking conservation easements on privately held forest land.
"We think it is one way the watershed lands can be protected from development," said Cathleen Breen of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Rene Germain, associate professor of forest and natural resources management at
SUNY, said the project will demonstrate the best ways to manage a forest to
maximize its economic potential and ensure healthy habitats for forest wildlife.
"If we want to regenerate a healthy forest, we need to thin it," Germain said. "What
we are doing there at Nimham is we are going to go in and enhance the growth and
health of existing trees, and plan for the future by regenerating a new forest. It's like
a garden, like weeding a garden."
The area to be logged is part of the 2,820-acre Hudson Highlands forest area,
encompassing parts of Kent, Philipstown, Patterson, Putnam Valley and Southeast in
Putnam County, Cortlandt in Westchester County, and Beekman and Pawling in
Dutchess County. The DEC subdivides the forest into six tracts, the largest being the
1,023-acre Nimham Mountain forest in Kent. The demonstration project will be in the
center of the Kent forest off Route 301, abutting the West Branch Reservoir and
Putnam County Park. It is an area that has undergone considerable change over the
past 300 years.
"Think of what New York and most of New England looked like 100 years ago before
agriculture collapsed," Germain said. "We cut down all our forests when they
colonized the area for farming. When the farms went out of business in the 1900s,
all those farms slowly turned back into forests. We were only 25 percent forested
then. Now, we are 60 percent forested, and we do not have a shortage of trees."
During the past 100 years, the Hudson Highlands has slowly evolved into an
untouched band of state and local forests stretching in an unbroken 44-mile line. It is
considered by experts to be a maturing forest, with a motley mixture of tree
varieties and many areas overgrown with brambles, invasive plants and trees too
close together. In another 50 years or so, it could become the first contiguous strand
of old-growth forest in the lower Hudson Valley since early settlers eviscerated the
Germain said timber harvesting would improve the forest's aesthetics. In a forest
that is not yet mature, he said, many trees are crowded together, cramping
development of their individual root structures, draining mineral resources in the
ground and blocking sunlight from reaching the ground and nourishing bushes and
"If you thin out a strand of trees," he said, "you take out the weaker trees and allow the fuller ones to become future crop trees. Birds that require open fields have
trouble in that area because the fields aren't there. You see them now along the
highways looking for food."
Some environmentalists question the need for a logging operation in Nimham. Jeff
Green, a Kent resident and member of the local environmental group Plan Putnam,
said if the logging proceeds, the forest's description should be changed to "a garden,
a timber woodlot."
"The forests here today are 80 to 100 years old, the oldest they have been in 300
years," Green said. "We have a unique opportunity here. If the DEC does not log the
forest, we are halfway to a major swath of old-growth forest just 50 miles from more
than 20 million people."
George Baum of the Kent Conservation Advisory Committee said the logging would
create an artificial environment.
"They will take out more than just the invasive trees," Baum said. "They really want
to promote the growth of trees that are more desirable in terms of commercial wood.
Two of the areas they plan to develop for open staging areas for logging trucks are
largely populated by oaks. That seems to me to be a desirable species. The cutting
and clearing they intend to do may improve the worth of the wood that eventually
grows here. But in terms of having a nice place to visit and walk around, I think it
will have an adverse effect."
The management program calls for eliminating nonnative trees, as well as those that
are less commercially viable. The program would cultivate oak, maple, ash and
walnut, and cut down boxelder, bitternut hickory, elm and ironwood.
At an international conference last week on the preservation of the world's 105 top
urban watersheds, the World Wildlife Fund and the World Bank presented a three-
year study concluding that managing forest watersheds for their economic value is one of the best ways to preserve them.
Yet, Bob Irwin, the wildlife fund's conservation director, noted that the report did not
say forests must be managed as woodlot. "Certainly, one option should always be,
what happens if we just let it alone and let it resort to its fully natural state? A forest
left alone and allowed over time to become something approximating what was here
before settlement is the best of all possible worlds."
William Schlesinger, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke
University, suggested the state move the project to other available forests in the
Hudson River Valley or upstate.
"Old growth forests, particularly those surrounding urban areas, have an aesthetic
value of their own," he said. "Why convert it into a managed lot?"
Reach Roger Witherspoon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-696-8566.