When we look at the woods, we think of them as something that’s always been there and always will be.
But always is always the opposite — the woods are always changing.
Trees die and new ones — not always the same ones — grow back. In the 18th and 19th century, the colonials and their descendants cut down almost all the state’s trees to make farm fields. When they abandoned those fields, the woods grew back
A fungal blight eradicated one of the predominant trees in the woods — the American chestnut. Insects are now killing off the state’s ash, and threatening its beeches. Developers are clearing away woodlots to plant new houses.
All this is happening as the climate warms and the forests are increasingly valuable for the carbon they take out of the air.
Spencer Meyer, senior conservationist at Highstead, the arboretum and forest research center in Redding, said the state’s forests are responsible for removing about 16 percent of the emissions from motor vehicles and industrial pollution in the state.
“That number could go up to 25 percent,” he said. And if humans reduce their pollution, the constant percentage of CO2 the state’s forests sequester could be even more valuable.
“It could be as much as 90 percent,” Meyer said.
The Connecticut Forest and Parks Associations — the private organizations that, among its many tasks, supervises the state’s Blue Trail system — is now studying forest resiliency in the state, looking at the woods’ strengths and vulnerabilities, as well as the need to plant more trees in city streetscapes.
Working with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection — which gave the association a grant for this work — and 15 other groups on the state, the association hopes to finish a report on its work by year’s end, then present it to the General Assembly in 2022. Its goal is to get more funding for forest preservation and enhancement — both in cities and the country.
The state’s landscape is now about 60 percent forested, with much of it owned privately.
“Only 18 percent is in conversation,” Meyer said.
The association’s executive director, Eric Hammerling said the COVID-19 pandemic may be pushing increased development of the woods because of the demand for new homes.
“There are a lot of people moving into the state,” he said.
And it is mostly a mature forest — predominately middle-aged to senior citizen trees.
Hammerling talked about how black oaks in the state — trees that are 100 to 150 years old — are mostly in that category.
“They’re starting to show signs of age,” he said.
At the same time, the state’s abundant herd of white-tailed deer feed off oak seedlings. This creates a problem — older trees having trouble regenerating.
And oaks — which produce tons of acorns a year — feed the woodland. Mice, squirrels, chipmunks, turkey, deer depend on them. A host of predators, in turn, hunt those animals.
“It’s a keystone species,” said Chris Martin, head of the DEEP’s forestry division.
Trees lining city streets also die off and have to be replaced.
In low-income neighborhoods, they haven’t been planted at all. Martin said the state has a poor record of planting trees in those neighborhoods.
But those trees are essential for shading and cooling streets and homes in the summer — something that will become more important in a warming world.
“They can make as much as a 15-degree difference,” Martin said. “And they make a psychological difference.”
Tim Abbott, regional land conservation and Greenprint director for the Housatonic Valley Association — the Cornwall-based environmental advocacy group — said one of the keys for preparing for the changes to come is to make sure there are large tracts of forested land preserved that are connected by wildlife corridors.
That will allow wildlife to migrate and move as the climate changes.
Abbott said he’d also like to have some forest tracts remain untouched by timbering or conservation practices, simply so that foresters can study the changes that are coming more accurately.
He also acknowledges no one knows enough now to take any immediate action on things like changing tree species. A lot more research is needed.
“My attitude is ‘First, do no harm,’” Abbott said.
Highsted’s Meyer said because the changes coming to the woods will be gradual, people may not be aware they’re happening.
“We’re fortunate to live among the forest every day,” he said. “You don’t notice it until it’s gone.”