Trying to Keep the Quiet Corner Quiet

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Photo © Harold Shapiro
When Shelby Semmes graduated in 2011 with a master’s degree in forestry, she found herself in Yale Myers Forest dressed in orange Kevlar chaps, goggles and a helmet. During two days of training in chainsaw safety—she practiced avoiding kickback and the plunge-cut method of felling a tree—Semmes prepared for her summer job. She would soon be one of nine apprentice foresters at Yale’s forest in the “quiet corner” of northeastern Connecticut.
 
A few weeks later, Semmes’s friend and classmate Angela Orthmeyer M.E.M. ’11 arrived at Yale Myers to begin social science research—surveying landowners—for the F&ES Quiet Corner Initiative that will engage nearby landowners in the management of the land surrounding the 12-square-mile forest. The initiative recently received $230,293 from the federal government to further implement and expand the partnership of landowners interested in learning about and practicing forestland stewardship.
Maintaining working forests is essential for ecological conservation and maintenance of livelihoods in rural New England
The quiet corner is one of the last vestiges of densely forested areas in southern New England, and the majority of the land is privately owned. These private forests contain great public value and serve as a strategic asset for the region, providing clean water and air, local and global climate amelioration, conservation and wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities. However, many forest owners either do not manage their forests or do so without a long-term vision. These factors strongly contribute to resource exploitation, the parcelization, sale and eventual development of forestland, and the loss of open space.

“Maintaining working forests is essential for ecological conservation and maintenance of livelihoods in rural New England,” said Mark Ashton, M.F. ’85, Ph.D. ’90, Morris K. Jesup Professor of Silviculture and Forest Ecology and director of school forests. “But doing so becomes increasingly difficult as forested properties become small and fragmented.”
 
While Orthmeyer was conducting her surveys, Kevin Barrett M.F.S. ’12 was beginning his research on deer at Yale Myers. Barrett analyzed the habitats deer prefer in a managed landscape. He began by estimating deer density in various parts of the forest, methodically walking through the forest trolling for deer pellets. 
 
Semmes, Orthmeyer and Barrett were among two-dozen students, recent graduates and faculty who spent the summer of 2011, or long stretches of it, at Yale’s 7,840-acre forest.
Richard Campbell, forest manager, and Angela Orthmeyer, forest researcher, looking at the flower head of the white wood aster.
Photo © Harold Shapiro
Richard Campbell, forest manager, and Angela Orthmeyer, forest researcher, looking at the flower head of the white wood aster.
“The forest is largely managed by students, which is very, very unusual for a university forest,” said Ashton. “It’s a very important educational experience.” Through the hands-on work of the students who serve as apprentice foresters and the contributions of students who connect with adjacent landowners, Ashton says, “We’re looking at managing the forest for the long term.” The students are overseen by faculty and forest manager Richard Campbell M.F. ’07.
 
For Semmes, 12 weeks as an apprentice forester meant gaining intimate knowledge of the northernmost part of the Yale forest, the 900-acre Myers Division. The apprentice —also known as the forest crew — were charged with making a plan for harvesting trees last fall and winter.
 
Semmes and the rest of the crew began by taking field exercises in dendrology, wildlife habitat, soils, hydrology, land-use history, roads, logistics and operations, and wood utilization and grading. They then integrated all of this information by “reading” the landscape, one of ridges and valleys dominated by oaks and hemlocks. As they walked, they verified and re-delineated stands of similar trees from existing GIS-based maps of species composition, age and land use. Then, within each stand, they randomly mapped points at which to evaluate individual trees. They described the sample trees by species type and growth form (which affects what the wood can be used for), and measured them for height and diameter and evaluated the regeneration at the forest floor and the habitat value for various species of wildlife. The sampled trees gave the apprentices a picture of the Myers Division as a whole. The next step was to identify areas for silvicultural prescriptions that would increase diversity of forest age class and species composition and that would also provide some income. With specific areas and prescription in mind, the next step was to mark trees for harvest with paint guns. A blue dot at the base of the trunk indicated that the tree should be cut.
 
The harvest was part of a seven-year cycle that moves from one division to the next. What trees were marked for cutting in each stand hinged on the aim of the treatment prescription for that stand. Where its aim was to allow trees to grow, Semmes and her fellow crew members prescribed thinning. Where the goal was regeneration, the crew marked most of the trees with blue dots. A regeneration cut would create a sunny patch of land in which new seedlings could sprout and grow. Even where they ordered a regeneration cut, the crew spared some trees: a few younger trees to provide seeds; large, old “wolf” trees; and small clusters for species diversity or to provide shelter and food for wildlife.
Andrew Breck, apprentice forester, talks about a forest treatment they are passing through. Angela Orthmeyer (white shirt and green hat), forest researcher, looks on.
Photo © Harold Shapiro
Andrew Breck, apprentice forester, talks about a forest treatment they are passing through. Angela Orthmeyer (white shirt and green hat), forest researcher, looks on.
On a given day in the woods, says Semmes, “You’re constantly making mental calculations about what is appropriate to do with every tree. You’re capitalizing on two years of coursework.” Semmes says she drew on classes ranging from dendrology to business and the environment. “When making a decision whether to not to mark a tree to be cut, I would call upon my understanding of the autecology of the tree—its shade tolerance, age and dominance within the canopy. I’d use that to decide whether a tree should stay or go in the context of the harvest prescription that we’d written.”
 
Semmes described Ashton as “an amazing mentor.” She said, “It’s a combination of patience and passion and enormous dedication to the students, connecting the students to this landscape he cares so much about, and about which he has such a deep understanding.” In the woods, she said, he brought to life what they’d learned in the classroom. For example, they’d studied shelterwood regeneration harvests in Ashton’s silviculture class. When they arrived at the forest, he spent a whole day in the forest showing the crew examples of that type of cut. (At Yale Myers, a shelterwood cut removes older trees to make way for new seedlings while leaving some mature trees to provide seeds or shelter, along with others for diversity and increased structure.)
 
Few of the apprentices will go on to become field foresters, says Campbell. But he says that students who may have long planned to go into policy, advocacy or ecosystems services apply to be part of the forest crew because they recognize that “You need to know the language of forest management and you need to know the practices in order to have any credibility.” Working in the forest teaches apprentices to judge how well a management prescription fits a landscape. For instance, they learn that a plan to log a stand of 20-inch-diameter trees may not make sense for nearby trees with 12-inch diameters, even if the species is the same. The larger trees might be ready for harvest to make room for new trees, while the stand of smaller trees might need thinning.
 
While the forest crew was walking the woods marking trees, Orthmeyer was beginning her research on the social and economic aspects of forest management under the supervision of Robert Mendelsohn, a professor of forest policy and of economics. She sent surveys to more than 250 landowners to find out whether they would be interested in managing their land to receive payments for environmental services, such as carbon sequestration, water filtration and access to recreation on the land. Of the 82 landowners who replied, for example, two out of three were interested in managing their land for watershed services—that is, to protect streams and other water bodies, to increase flows to reservoirs, and to maximize the water purification provided by their forest holdings. In theory, the landowners would get payments in return. The survey also asked them what they valued about their land. The most common attributes cited were opportunities to hike, to collect household firewood and to watch birds and other wildlife.
 
Orthmeyer noted that these results were preliminary; part of her work as a research associate at the Yale School Forests was to analyze the data with her summer research partner, aBrown University undergraduate. They plan to write several journal articles about the landowners’ responses and also about their survey of 680 people they approached at Connecticut recreation areas. They asked those surveyed whether they would be willing to pay for public benefits that forests can provide, such as places to hike and ecosystems services. Early results of their surveys suggest that most people would be willing to pay. For example, two-thirds would pay for recreational access to privately owned land and for drinking water from forested areas.
Connecting with landowners has been a way to use the lessons I’ve learned in my education to do something practical.
“There is a lot of pressure now for this area of Connecticut to be developed,” says Orthmeyer. “It’s now the most-forested area of southern New England. Connecting with landowners has been a way to use the lessons I’ve learned in my education to do something practical. I think it’s really great that the forestry school is doing something in this area. I feel I have a responsibility to, wherever I’m living, contribute.”
 
Another project of the Quiet Corner Initiative was to find local landowners interested in working with F&ES students on land-management plans. Summer researcher Meredith Cowart M.F. ’10 sent questionnaires to 250 landowners in the four towns in and around Yale Myers and more than 50 said they’d be interested. Ideally both students and landowners will learn from the collaboration, says Nathan Rutenbeck M.F. ’12, M.A.R.’12, student coordinator for the initiative. “We’re approaching them as consultants, trying to help them identify their own goals for the property—and maybe goals for the entire neighborhood, if they’re shared goals. What we’re going for is increased capacity for stewardship.”
 
As part of their coursework last fall, F&ES students helped write seven such plans in Ashton’s “Management Plans” course. At the same time, students using MacBroom’s “River Processes” course were evaluating the condition of rivers and streams within the properties of the landowners. During spring term, students in “Strategies for Land Conservation” had similar opportunities. One option for a clinical project in Professor Bradford Gentry’s course was to work with three landowners who want to jointly develop a management plan. They might, for example, establish a maple-sugaring operation crossing property boundaries.
 
Kevin Barrett spent much of his summer sojourn at Yale Myers investigating how forest management affects where deer spend their time and get their food—deer “herbivory.” For his capstone master’s project, Barrett is examining various types of forest cover to measure the effects of vegetation patterns on the “thermal budget” of deer. (A thermal budget is the net heat gained or lost by an animal. To survive, a deer must, in the long run, maintain thermal homeostasis.)
 
Using a mathematical formula developed in the 1980s and used by his advisor, Professor Oswald Schmitz, Barrett estimated heat gained or lost by a prototypical 135-kilogram deer. He did this based on wind speed, solar radiation, air and ground temperature and forest-cover type. Then he measured how much Yale Myers deer ate in 15 sample plots, where he counted the number of chewed-on stems compared with total stems.
Yale Myers’ annual open house on Aug. 3, 2011, attracted over 50 neighbors and F&ES school staff and faculty for a six-mile hike.
Photo © Harold Shapiro
Yale Myers’ annual open house on Aug. 3, 2011, attracted over 50 neighbors and F&ES school staff and faculty for a six-mile hike.
Barrett hopes to show which methods of harvesting trees are less likely to attract deer. Using such insights might minimize damage by deer and perhaps even cause their numbers to shrink. Deer are a “hot topic,” says Barrett, because they undermine forest regeneration by browsing on seedlings. And the population is proliferating. By counting deer pellets, Barrett found that the number of deer in Yale Myers has at least doubled in 16 years; there were 10 to 15 deer per square kilometer in 1995, and he estimates that there are now 30. He adds a caveat: his estimates may be a high because he counted deer only in managed sections of the forest. Furthermore, the deer population fluctuates depending upon acorn production. For instance, acorns were relatively scarce this year, so the number of deer may dip. Barrett says that the trend nonetheless points toward more deer. “This could be a rough year coming up, but acorns can’t serve as a long-term index for deer population,” he says.
 
One of the pleasures of Yale Myers in the summer, says Barrett, was “coming back in the evenings and talking about different research methods, hearing from the forest crew their techniques for forest inventory, their thought processes for how they plan to prescribe treatments for the forest. You pick up ideas and sometimes sampling methods.” Students and faculty would go swimming at nearby Bigelow Hollow State Park, and Barrett fished there. Semmes and Orthmeyer did yoga on the bunkhouse porch and, on Monday evenings, the whole group would gather for a daiquiri party at Ashton’s nearby house.
 
Semmes says that it was a hands-on learning experience where we became fully grounded in ecological principles, such as insuring appropriate and diverse wildlife habitat structure and considering soil quality, and in social values management, such as considering financial revenue, recreational opportunities, and aesthetic results. “We are going to carry this experience with us throughout our careers—regardless of whether we’re going to be knee-deep in the woods again.”
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