When A Tree Falls In The Forest … Replant It?

by Sam Gurwitt

Where a pine forest once formed a canopy over picnic tables and a soft bed of fallen needles at the entrance to Sleeping Giant State Park, there is now a large clearing. It’s time to decide: Replant it? Or leave it open space?

That formerly pine-covered picnic area is in the middle of a loop of road at the entrance to Sleeping Giant on Mount Carmel Avenue in Hamden. It was a beloved spot for families until the tornado of 2018 razed the tree canopy, giving way to barren ground.

Wednesday evening, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) hosted a meeting at Hamden’s town hall to present preliminary plans for the site, and to get public input on those plans.

It was sad to see the destruction of the old tree canopy, said DEEP State Parks Division Director Thomas Tyler, but “if we are forced to look for a silver lining, it does give us a clean slate.” The facilities and landscaping at the entrance to the park are very old, he said, and this is an opportunity to improve them.

Through a survey and a series of previous workshops, she said, Fuss and O’Neill had determined that people want shade, bathrooms, reforestation, and a visitor’s center, among other things. The plan she presented Wednesday would include places to picnic, a better parking lot, a centrally located visitor’s center with trailheads radiating from it, flex space, storm-water management systems, and reforestation. It would take many years to implement.

In the short term, she said, the state would restore picnicking to shaded areas, and would install shade structures in other places before trees have time to grow back. It would plant wildflowers and other native plants in open areas to prevent erosion in the short term, and would begin planting trees in certain places. It would also create storm-water management systems and re-establish trailheads.

In the short-mid-term, the reforestation efforts would begin in earnest. On a map she showed as a part of her presentation, trees would begin to populate the hillside on the northeastern side of the clearing. Depending on funding, the state could begin working on a visitor’s center.

All of those efforts would continue until finally, in the long-term, the parking lot would be consolidated into a larger but more environmentally sensitive lot with buffers and erosion controls.

To Replant Or Not to Replant

Fuss & O’Neill’s plan shows reforestation along the edges of what’s now a clearing. On a drawing White presented to the public, the middle of a looped road, where the pine-canopied picnic area used to be, would be left open. Whether to leave that area open, or replant it, is one of the major questions to figure out, said Fuss & O’Neill’s Christopher Ferrero. He explained that early on in the process, people will start donating trees, and the state will need to know where to plant them.

Most of the people in the room seemed to want trees, in some form or another.

“I think the consensus was more trees,” said Margaret Ariori. “We don’t need more open spaces. We have a lot of those in Hamden.”

For some people, that old pine forest held a significant sentimental value.

“I remember coming as a child with my family and stretching a World War Two-surplus hammock between the trees,” said one man in the audience.

Many said those pine trees should not be replicated, however. Park Manager Jill Scheibenpflug (pictured above), for example, said they were dangerous. Branches would fall off, and she and a co-worker were almost hit by a falling tree once, she said.

“People’s hearts are with that pine grove because ‘grandpa took me,’” said Julie Hulten, who is a member of the Sleeping Giant Park Association. “I think that a lot of the thought about recreating a grove is a lot of ‘I wish we could go back in time.’” However, she said, it would not be a good idea to replicate the pine grove. Those pines were planted as a part of a Works Progress Administration project in the 1930s. As with many WPA projects, the idea was to employ people, and was not necessarily well planned. The pine monoculture that resulted had overlapping roots underground, she said, that made trees too rigid so they would snap. A reforestation effort in that area, she said, would have to be more resilient.

Jim Clark (pictured above, with Thomas Tyler), also a member of the Sleeping Giant Park Association, said that an idea came to him as he listened to the discussion. Perhaps the area could have a series of gravel trails, accessible for people with strollers and with limited mobility, that could also have modest tree coverage for shade. It could serve as a space for some family activities, he said, while also providing shade.

White said that Fuss & O’Neill will continue taking comments from the public until Dec. 20, not only on what to do with the old picnic area/pine grove, but also on other parts of the plan. That includes the amenities at the park (visitor’s center, bathrooms, parking lot), the landscaping, educational elements, and efforts for sustainability. Anyone with ideas should email DEEP.stateparks@ct.gov.

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