Destroying a Village to Save One

A Naturalist’s Journal

By Bruce Fellman for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers

“Then I heard his voice,/now I’m a believer...” (with apologies to songwriter Neil Diamond and The Monkees).

Roughly a decade ago, when I still had strong knees, a better-than-decent heart and could bicycle up steep hills, I noticed something disconcerting at the very top of one of my favorite spots in southeastern Connecticut’s Pachaug State Forest. With what had to be the full consent of the state’s Department of Environmental Management, a large logging team was beginning to systematically de-forest dozens of acres of woodland.

Pachaug State Forest

In the carefully created undergrowth of a cleared area of a Connecticut woodland, the namesake calls of a once-abundant bird known as the Whip-poor-will again ring out to haunt the dusk./B. Fellman

I was utterly horrified.

I knew that as part of a perfectly reasonable forest management plan, the official woodland stewards were trying to create a better age-balance among trees, and that meant taking down a certain percentage of mature and older hardwoods and softwoods in order to let the youngsters flourish in the cleared acreage. But as I watched the process unfold, my head and heart were at odds with each other, and all I could think of was that apocryphal dispatch from the Vietnam War about having to destroy a village to save it. In fact, the endeavor so upset me that I found another bike route and rarely drove by the carnage.

For better or worse, I’ve borne witness to a number of similar endeavors over the intervening years, and even when I’ve had a hand in guiding such young-forest-creation projects, I’ve had the same reaction, which followed a path akin to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief. It wasn’t easy, and the path was never particularly straight, but I somehow managed to navigate my way through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance because I knew, intellectually at least, that what was happening was, for the natural environment, a good and necessary thing.

Besides, I was promised rewards.

In addition to seeing a forest restored to a more balanced assemblage of age-class trees, there would, I was assured, be an increase in species diversity, since a young woodland—more properly termed a thicket—would be home to an entirely different collection of plants and animals than would be supported by a tree geezerland. Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, not normally considered a natural history prophet, had it metaphorically right—OK, in the parlance of the era, right on—when he wrote about mothers and fathers in the 1963 classic, “The Times, They are A-Changin’”:

Your old road is/Rapidly agin’./Please get out of the new one/If you can’t lend your hand...

Left unsaid was the notion that stepping aside was the natural order of the known universe and sometimes, it might be to the good of the planet to give the obdurate a swift kick in the necessary direction. I certainly hope this doesn’t apply to the Naturalist, but I’ve seen, first-hand, the happy impact of management, even what seem like draconian, destroy-the-village-type endeavors, on bringing back such species as the Atlantic Puffin and other seabirds off the coast of Maine, and I’m watching the remarkable impact on the ridge and surrounding areas where the toppled old trees are giving rise to shrubs and thickets that are nurturing such charismatic mini-fauna as the area’s indigenous and threatened bunny, the New England Cottontail, and a host of songbirds that have almost disappeared from our locale.

I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen a NE Cottontail, which looks just about identical to the ubiquitous and imported Eastern Cottontail Rabbit, but I know that if our native species, Sylvilagus transitionalis (the Eastern, which was introduced into the area starting in the late-1800s, is known to scientists as Sylvilagus floridanus) is ever going to thrive, our species is going to have to take an active part. Recently, we have, and good for us.

As Canadian biologist Tony Diamond told Cornell’s Stephen W. Kress in Project Puffin, Kress’s account of his effort to bring the fabled bird back to offshore Maine, “It’s time somebody played God after our predecessors played the devil for so long.”

Just knowing that there might be NE Cottontails hiding out of harm’s way amidst the coverts left behind after the loggers have departed the scene is enough for me, but recently, I returned to that former forest I mentioned at the outset and discovered just how many other beleaguered species were now thriving.

For example, when we moved to our present ridge in the early-80s, one of the glories of May when I left the house on my daily jogs or bike rides was to hear the ascending trill of notes tossed off effortlessly by the seemingly ubiquitous Prairie Warbler males that defended their young forest territories along the roadsides. The Rufous-sided Towhee, a large and pretty member of the sparrow clan with a call that suggested a fondness for tea—the notes are usually translated as “drink your tea... hee... hee... hee...”—was a sure sighting and hearing. And at dusk, the shrublands resounded with the namesake calls of Whip-poor-wills, almost invisible birds whose haunting notes would sometimes continue, especially if the moon was full, all night.

I loved those songs, and I was deeply saddened as they began to disappear from the landscape. To be sure, I’d still hear Towhees praising Red Rose and other brands, but this year, when a spot that used to always yield calling Prairies went the way of a Dollar General, I hadn’t heard a warbler there in a decade. It’s probably close to five years since a Whip-poor-will call last rang out through the twilight on the ridge.

The nearby forests had either grown up or been truly destroyed ecologically, either to McMansion developments or commerce. In either case, the formerly resident birds had to go elsewhere.

Now I know where they went.

Destroying a woodland to save it is not pretty, but, I now have to admit, it’s effective—and, these days, a better option than standing idly by and hoping nature will take its course through such young forest creators as beaver dams, forest fires, hurricanes, blizzards, and tornadoes, along with tree-killing insect and disease plagues. I’m seeing strategic logging do the job of creating space for displaced critters, and I’ve become a believer.

On a trek through the Pachaug, there were Towhees cheerleading tea drinkers, Prairies trilling up a storm, and, at dusk, to the rhythm of firefly flashes, Whip-poor-wills repeating their names ad infinitum. Such young forests are also now home to a host of species that wildlife biologists consider to be of great conservation concern, everything from the birds I mentioned to the American Woodcock and the Golden-winged Warbler, among others. Indeed, many of the deep forest dwellers, such as the Scarlet Tanager, turn out to use shrub habitat as a kind of grocery store, particularly after the kids have left the nests. I just wish the bunnies and the birds weren’t so shy about showing off for the Naturalist’s camera. And I dearly wish the refuges we’ve crafted weren’t so nurturing for less desirables, deer flies and mosquitoes in particular.