Aquarion undertakes forest regeneration

New growth is popping up all over forests devastated by Superstorm Sandy — and a new phase of the regeneration process has begun.

“All trees [needing to be] cut down and removal related to Superstorm Sandy is done,” said George Logan, director of environmental management and government relations for Aquarion Water Co., referring to Aquarion-owned land in Shelton and other nearby communities.

And the coarse woody material that remains?

“All the tree stumps and limbs that are there are staying there,” Logan said.

Which is a good thing.

“It’s a nutrient source,” said Gary Haines, manager of watershed maintenance and forest operations for Aquarion. “It’s great for forest ecology, wildlife ecology.”

Aquarion serves the region, including Shelton.

The ecosystem

The health of the area’s reservoirs is a reflection of the environment that surrounds them. In particular, the forests. When Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc with the forests in 2012 it upset the ecology that feeds the water supply.

The Conservation Land Committee — the partnership between Aquarion, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) and The Nature Conservancy — manages the 15,000 acres of land known as Centennial Watershed State Forest.

Last year, the committee began efforts to restore the 22 distinct areas — totaling 100 acres — of the forests that were hit hardest by Sandy.

The forests that were damaged contained mostly white pine trees, which are not native to the area and were planted by a previous water company in the 1920s and 1930s.

This created monoculture forests. A monoculture is when a crop is all one species, and in this case, they are also about the same age. It is considered less than ideal.

“It’s good to have diversity,” Haines said.

The road to biodiversity

Areas in Shelton, Fairfield, Easton, Redding and Monroe were hit hard. As of June 29, 2013, the initial phase of work ended and by February 2014 the clearing of logs was done.

Now, the two main focuses of regeneration efforts are managing invasive species plants and dealing with the challenges of controlling the large deer population. To manage invasive, non-native species of plants they are using environmentally friendly pesticides, about two ounces worth per acre of material.

To address the issue of navigating the ways in which deer browsing influences the regeneration process, a monitoring process is underway that involves eight deer exclosures.

Ed Faison, ecologist for Highstead Foundation in West Redding, collaborated with Haines on setting up the experiment and is in charge of monitoring.

“New growth attracts deer,” Faison said.

The eight deer exclosures are 10-meters by 10-meters and about seven-feet high.

“It prevents the deer from getting in but lets in small animals,” Faison said.

Four of the test areas are set up in parts of the forests affected by Superstorm Sandy, while four are in areas unaffected and untreated. In close proximity to each exclosure is a similar area marked with the same dimensions but with no exclosure.

“That way, we can see how a forest grows when exposed to deer,” Faison said.

A lot will depend on how large the deer population is in those areas.

“If the deer population isn’t as big as we expect, there won’t be much difference,” Logan said.

They will be looking at what deer are eating and not eating, and which species grow better as well as the overall effect on plant diversity. They will also be making a species list, including herbaceous plants such as grasses, ferns and wildflowers, and woody plants like shrubs.

“Over time, the food chain is changed,” Haines said.

Gathering baseline data

This summer, Faison will be gathering baseline data with a couple of interns. He is unsure at present how often data will be collected for comparison purposes.

“Every time you go, you trample [the forest] a little,” Faison said.

Typically, it takes a minimum of three years to get meaningful results, he said, but he might go again sooner depending on how things look.

Three test areas are easily visible from the road. Those are along Route 58 in Easton, on Everett Road in Easton and Umpawaug Road in Redding. The other five are in remote areas.

“Folks are already asking [when they see them],” Haines said.

The process

Regrowing a forest is a long-term commitment and a lively process.

“It’s so dynamic in the period of decades,” Haines said. “New species come in and others move out.”

He expects the new forest that grows to be more diverse — which is healthier than the monoculture forest it is replacing. “Our goal is to grow a new and stronger forest in the affected areas,” Haines said.

They are trying to encourage hardwood trees. There are already, naturally, seeds in the soil for native hardwood trees such as maples, black birch, ash, yellow poplar, hickory, beech and oak.

There will be some white pines coming in, Haines said, but that’s OK. “It’s good to have diversity,” he said.

And coarse woody material lining the forest floors returning nutrients to the soil.

“There’s no better way to encourage forest regeneration than to leave what’s there,” Logan said.

The material also helps keep out deer and prevents their grazing on new seedlings.

“Some of the nicest growth is where deer can’t get to it,” Haines said. “Coarse woody material has a number of benefits.”

And it will keep getting better. “In the next few years, you will see a huge difference,” Logan said.