What Does Future Hold for NY's Connecticut Hill WMA?

By Jaime Cone for www.ithaca.com

Representatives from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation gave a presentation September 14 regarding the 11,237-acre Wildlife Management Area (WMA) commonly known as Connecticut Hill.

The presentation was given by Adam Perry, DEC wildlife biologist, and Andrew Drake, DEC forester, and as the evening went on it became clear that one of the main concerns for many of the 75 members of the public who attended was public use of the land.

chestnut-sided warbler

Many types of songbirds, including chestnut-sided warblers, will use the young forest habitat that NYDEC is creating on select wildlife management areas statewide./Tom Berriman

The number one concern for the DEC when it comes to WMAs is wildlife habitat management. “The thing we think about first is, is this good for grouse, warblers, deer, turkeys, whatever it may be?” explained Perry.

The second most important concern is providing areas for wildlife-dependent pastimes such as trapping, hunting and bird watching.

Almost all Wildlife Management Areas, including Connecticut Hill, are open to the public; however, Perry made it very clear that the DEC is not responsible for maintaining existing trails that have been cleared and maintained by locals over the years.

Many residents said they use these unofficial trails for activities like horseback riding, mountain biking and cross-country skiing, but these are not considered wildlife-dependent uses for the land and therefore are not a priority of the DEC.

According to Perry, the DEC will not be requiring timber harvesting crews to clean up fallen logs or any other obstructions of the trails, and it is illegal for residents to take it upon themselves to do so. The Finger Lakes Land Trust hiking trails are an exception, being state-sanctioned recreational areas.

Several members of the public expressed dismay over the possibility of losing trails they have used for years and in some cases decades. One landowner who lives near the WMA said he was taken aback when an area that had been historically used for camping was suddenly clear-cut without warning.

Perry said he is familiar with the area the man was describing and that it was not a sanctioned campsite but the site of illegal off-roading.

The harvesting of trees will be a regular part of the process of maintaining the forest, said Perry, as in this particular WMA one of the main goals is to increase the amount of young forest. Young forest is the favored habitat of many species, he said, including songbirds.

To achieve that goal, the DEC has developed a 67-page habitat management plan, which is a fluid document charting the plan for the next 10 years. It can be found on the DEC’s website at www.dec.ny.gov. (Also find it as an attachment at the bottom of this webpage.)

Connecticut Hill’s 11,237 acres spans several towns and two counties. Ninety-six percent of the land is forested, and it has only about 225 acres of grassland currently.

When the first initial acres of what is now the WMA was acquired by New York State in 1929, the forest had been logged and cleared for agriculture. At that time, all the farms were dying out because the farmers found the land too rough and rocky to be good farmland, according to Perry, and the State replanted millions of trees.

“They would just plant, plant, plant,” said Perry. Then in the 1950s and 1960s some of the forest was harvested, and today the woods continue to get older and older.

wild turkey

Game animals such as wild turkeys benefit from the enhanced food and cover found in areas of young forest habitat./Tom Berriman

The goal is to create 10 percent young forest on Connecticut Hill compared to the 1 percent there today. The DEC would like to increase the amount of shrublands to from 1 percent to 2 percent and grasslands from 2 percent to about 3 percent in order to ensure forest diversity and health.

Perry said that a couple areas were clear-cut last year and the year before. “There was some concerted effort to create more grassland, so we moved some stumps, regraded and reseeded the land to break it up a little bit up there.”

When an area is harvested, the money from the timber goes to the conservation general fund, which is a statewide fund that is redistributed throughout the state. “It’s used for things like field gear, special projects, or even the cartridges for the printer in the office – things like that,” Perry said.

If there are wet ground conditions that can’t support heavy machinery, or if there are endangered or threatened animal species or historical or archeological concerns within an area, then the DEC would employ light impact machinery, added Drake.

If the timber in a given area is not suitable for sale, the DEC pursues a noncommercial option, often using a piece of machinery that resembles a skid-steer with rotating teeth (basically a wood chipper) attached to it. It’s effective when getting rid of invasive shrubs like honeysuckle or Japanese knotweed, Perry said.

Perry was asked by a member of the public about the emerald ash borer, an invasive species of beetle that has been known to destroy ash stands throughout the United States in recent years. Their reach has expanded as far west as Indiana and stretches all the way across the eastern half of the county to Massachusetts and as far south as Georgia.

According to Perry, they have yet to be found on Connecticut Hill, but he said that unfortunately they’re usually not spotted until it’s too late and the insect has not only started killing trees but also spread to adjacent areas. Still, Perry said, the plan is a living document, and if the beetle is found then the plan will change to include the DEC’s response.

Though some residents were displeased with the possibility of losing trails, many who attending the meeting expressed thanks to DEC employees for the work they do.

(Learn more about New York's Young Forest Initiative.)