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Stonington project will test how forests can adapt to climate change

Stonington — Connecticut Sea Grant and the Avalonia Land Conservancy have teamed up on a project that will use the 200-acre Hoffman Evergreen Preserve off Route 201 as a laboratory to see how land managers can help forests adapt to climate change.

Trees in some sections of the preserve, which is owned by Avalonia and popular with hikers and bird watchers, had been damaged by storms and infestations of moths and other insects. That led Avalonia to hire Hull Forest Products last year to clear some of the damaged forest, leaving some open areas that will now be the subject of the demonstration project.

“We want to increase the resilience of the forest and maintain the water quality filtration services it provides to Long Island Sound,” said Juliana Barrett, coastal habitat specialist for Connecticut Sea Grant, in announcing the project. “We’re trying to plant the right trees for the right time.”

Connecticut Sea Grant is located at the University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus in Groton.

“This is about helping to restore a healthy forest,” added Beth Sullivan, Stonington chairperson for Avalonia. “It’s something we’ve been working towards for the last five to six years.”

The two groups will use a $57,144 grant from the Long Island Sound Futures Fund to develop a forest management plan for the cleared areas, along with a series of public education programs. The grant will be matched with $33,600 of services from Avalonia volunteers.

Among the first of such projects in the state, the Hoffman Preserve project will incorporate climate change projections and use plants better adapted to future conditions. The plants will be chosen for their ability to regenerate under future climate conditions and their value as food sources for wildlife.

Robert Ricard, a forester and senior extension educator with UConn, will help develop the plan and planting list, and provide guidance on the best locations for particular species.

“We’re going to try some species at the edge of their limits in Connecticut that, based on climate change projections, we think will do well,” Barrett said.

For example, instead of replanting the same species of hemlocks, oaks and ash vulnerable to insects and weather disruptions due to climate change, the plan will identify tree and shrub species likely to be more resilient in higher temperatures and which are now more common in the mid-Atlantic region.

Among these are the loblolly pine, about a dozen of which were planted at the preserve last spring, and thrived despite this past summer’s drought.

While the preserve is located inland several miles from the shoreline, Barrett said it plays an important role by absorbing runoff and filtering pollutants that normally would end up in Long Island Sound.

The public education component of the project was developed with Avalonia project collaborator Sharon Lynch, who works on education initiatives with the National Science Foundation.

It will consist of a series of four webinars that are intended for municipal and land trust officials, forest landowners and the public. A two-day workshop on principles for coastal forest resilience in the Long Island Sound region also will be offered.

Nancy Balcom, associate director of Connecticut Sea Grant, said she hopes the project will provide valuable information for land managers throughout the region.

“Given the devastation our local forests have suffered which threatens their ability to provide critical ecosystem and recreational services, it’s important to not only test the ability of new species to survive and thrive in our changing climate but to also share the progress and results widely so other land trusts and organizations can pursue similar paths,” she said.

She said the lessons learned at the Hoffman preserve will be shared with other land trusts and land managers, and hopes that tours of the site can be offered in the future to show how different plant species are adapting.

“It is heartwarming to see innovation at work, people and organizations getting together, planning and acting now for what the world will look like in decades,” said Sylvain De Guise, director of Connecticut Sea Grant. “At the same time, it is encouraging that grant programs are open enough to recognize and fund innovation, even if riskier than sticking with old habits."

j.wojtas@theday.com

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