Cutting trees to restore the Hoffman Preserve

Fallen trees at the Hoffman Preserve in Stonington.
photos by Beth Sullivan
Fallen trees at the Hoffman Preserve in Stonington. photos by Beth Sullivan

More than a half-century ago gold miner Robert D. Hoffman planted some 100,000 pine, spruce and hemlock seedlings in what is now a nature preserve in Stonington, hoping to recreate the Canadian forest he so revered while prospecting on snowshoes and canoe through remote regions of Ontario and Quebec in the 1920s.

Today many of those now full-size evergreens are dead or dying because of insect predation, drought and storms, and so plans are underway for a forest management program that calls for carefully planned, significant tree-cutting.

The Avalonia Land Conservancy, which owns the 198-acre Hoffman Preserve, approved the plan Wednesday night, and logging crews are expected to begin work soon.

"The main issue is it's become dangerous (because of the threat of falling limbs and trees)," said Beth Sullivan, Avalonia's steward for the town of Stonington. So much dead wood also poses a risk for forest fires, she added.

Crisscrossed with miles of trails, the preserve is a popular hiking destination that contains extensive stone walls, a stone chamber and a 19th-century cemetery known as Bennett Yard.

Thinning the forest will promote new growth, attract a greater diversity of wildlife and in the end make for a healthier, more vibrant forest, added Dennis Main, Avalonia's president. Studies by the Audubon Society and Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection supported this approach, he noted.

Avalonia has contracted with Hull Forest Products of Pomfret to remove some 214,000 board feet of sawlogs and 250 cords of firewood. Hull would pay the conservancy $17,850 for the wood; some of that money would be used to help maintain the Hoffman Preserve and nearly 100 other Avalonia properties amounting to about 3,500 acres in southeastern Connecticut.

Hoffman, who had become president of three international mining companies before settling in Stonington with his wife, Chippe, died in 1975. His estate donated the property to the Mashantucket Land Trust, which changed its name to the Avalonia Land Conservancy in 1995.

The Hoffman Preserve, bounded by Route 201, Wolf Neck Road and Lantern Hill Road, is one of the conservancy's largest holdings.

I went for a hike at Hoffman the other day with Avalonia member Jim Friedlander of Stonington, who often walks his dogs there and has long advocated for improving the preserve's forest.

"I used to see all kinds of wildlife here," Friedlander told me as we strolled from the Route 201 entrance along the main path. "These days you don't even see a squirrel," he added.

Friedlander said the trees, planted so closely together, have formed a dense canopy, eliminating much of the ground cover that many animals and birds feed on.

Christopher J. Casadei, a Hull forest resources manager who lives near the preserve, has studied it extensively and has prepared a detailed plan, will oversee the tree cutting.

The contract calls for Hull to remove felled trees, branches and chipped wood within 12 months, and to repair ruts left by skidders and other logging equipment.

"There's no question it will be disruptive," Sullivan said, adding that hikers can expect to see main trails widened to accommodate logging equipment through the winter until early spring. But in the end, the program will be worth the intrusion, she added.

"People will have to be patient," Sullivan said, noting that it will take years for new growth to take root and spread.

Avalonia also is posting signs in the preserve about the upcoming project and sending letters to residents who live nearby.

"Dead and crowded hemlocks will be removed and thinned to create space for healthy ones to expand and grow. Dead and dying oaks will be removed while their wood is still of some use and before more large trees fall into the trails. Areas where the pines were destroyed by the high winds and heavy snowstorms of the past two winters will be cut. This will allow the seedlings below to grow and thrive. Openings will be created to allow dense shrub growth to become established. Many of these shrubs will be berry bushes that will provide great food and shelter sources for a greater variety of species. The proposed work will avoid wetlands, slopes, and sensitive areas.  Some dead trees, snags, will remain for wildlife use, in places that will not endanger trails," the letter reads.

Friedlander said he and Casadei will soon begin flagging sensitive areas to ensure they won't be disturbed.

Main said Avalonia officials are impressed by work Hull has carried out at other nearby properties, and is confident the Hoffman Preserve eventually will be a showcase for responsible forest management.

This will not be the first time Avalonia has authorized tree cutting at one of its properties. In 2013 it approved clearing much of a 26-acre mixed hardwood forest at its Peck and Callahan preserves in Stonington as part of a federal program to create attractive habitat for New England cottontail rabbits.

Today the preserves are home not only to rabbits but also to many other bird and animal species, Main said.

He is confident the program about to begin at Hoffman will be similarly successful.

"It will be a big improvement," he said.

Fallen tree at the Hoffman Preserve in Stonington. (Beth Sullivan)
Fallen tree at the Hoffman Preserve in Stonington. (Beth Sullivan)
Fallen tree at the Hoffman Preserve in Stonington. (Beth Sullivan)
Fallen tree at the Hoffman Preserve in Stonington. (Beth Sullivan)

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