Friends of the Oswegatchie Hills work to restore imperiled pitch pines
East Lyme — In a quiet area near the entrance of the Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve, small pitch pine saplings are growing.
While the trees will take decades to reach maturity, the Friends of the Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve have embarked on a project to call attention to their significance and help restore and conserve the pitch pine, a species important to the area but which has become imperiled.
The new Pitch Pine Park, located adjacent to the main entrance to the 457-acre nature preserve, features saplings, a garden bed to raise pitch pine seedlings, entrance arbors and benches arranged in a circle so groups, from schoolchildren to community members, can gather at the spot before a hike or listen to a lecture.
The space will serve as a nursery to help conserve pitch pines but also will help educate people about the history of the species and why it’s important to conserve them, according to the Friends group.
“We want to recreate and have a demonstration area of what the ecosystem is like up in the hills,” said Greg Decker, stewardship chair of the Friends group and the driving force behind the project.
“The Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve currently contains locally rare stands of healthy pitch pines on two of its ridge tops,” according to a project description at the park. “The pines are being encroached upon by faster growing chestnut oaks which shade the full sun loving pines. Plans are to plant pitch pines here to grow to maturity as well as raise seedlings in raised garden beds and transplant them to the ridge tops.”
Pitch pines, which can grow in harsh conditions, were once more widespread in the area. Colonists used the trees for pine tar and lumber, and the resinous knots for illumination, from which the name "candlewood" is derived, Decker said. Then in the 20th century, pines were cut down to make way for development. Between the overuse, development and a lack of forest fires to clear areas for the trees, the species has become imperiled, he said.
The pitch pines also need full sunlight to thrive, and a lot of oak trees, a prevalent species in the hills, are overshadowing the pines.
Emery Gluck, a forester with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection who walked the Oswegatchie Hills with Decker several years ago and told the Friends they had a notable stand of pitch pines that were worth conserving, said the trees are prevalent in areas such as Cape Cod and in the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey but are diminishing in Connecticut.
Pitch pine/scrub oak ecosystems are one of the 13 imperiled ecosystems in Connecticut, and it's estimated that the state has lost approximately 95% of the ecosystem, mainly to development, Gluck said. The trees are important historically and also ecologically, as several state-endangered moths feed on the pitch pine.
He said pitch pines often grow on sandy, gravelly soil or on top of ledges, such as in the Oswegatchie Hills in East Lyme and Candlewood Wildlife Management Area in Groton.
The trees need very little soil but cannot tolerate shade and are often overtopped by other trees, so they tend to grow in areas where other trees can’t get established as well, he said. Forest fires create a good environment for the pine to regenerate, but today the state has few fires and not at the severity needed to sustain pitch pine. The state has done some controlled burns, such as at Hopeville Pond State Park in Griswold, to help with pitch pine restoration.
With climate change, the pitch pines also are facing threats like the southern pine beetle, which migrated to Connecticut and which the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station is monitoring, Decker said. Gluck and Decker said it’s important to ensure the trees are as healthy as possible so they can better fend off the beetle.
Conservation efforts in East Lyme, Groton
The Friends fundraised and received grants, as well as donations of materials from local businesses, to create the park in an area, by the entrance to Veterans Memorial Field in Niantic, that the town is allowing the Friends to use.
After developing the site, the Friends are planning to grow pitch pines from seed and plant more of the saplings in the spring. To simulate the environment in the hills, the group plans to plant different native species on the perimeter of the park, such as ferns, sweet pepper bush, laurel, blueberries and huckleberries, and a wildflower garden. Penny Heller, a member of the East Lyme Commission for the Conservation of Natural Resources and of the Friends group who retired from DEEP and is now a master gardener, did the layout for the plantings.
The Friends also plan on fundraising for a third phase of the project to create local history exhibits on icing operations on Clark Pond and on granite quarrying, including the numerous small granite quarries in Waterford and East Lyme and one up in the hills.
The 12- to 18-foot pitch pines currently in the Oswegatchie Hills are believed to have spawned from a forest fire in 1962, which was an important part of the story of the ecology of the hills, Decker said. He incorporated that story into the display at the parks by adding charred wood accents on the entrance arbors of the park.
Matt Smetana, a volunteer with a background in ecology and education, has mapped out the pitch pine stands in the Oswegatchie Hills preserve and found pitch pine saplings among the canopies of larger trees, which were encroaching on the pitch pines’ space and stunting their growth. The mapping lays the groundwork for future pitch pine restoration efforts in the hills.
There are also other efforts to conserve pitch pines in the region. In Groton, the Groton Open Space Association planted seedlings last summer, after Whitney Adams, GOSA's botanist, grew pitch pines from seed, GOSA President Joan Smith said. A stand of pitch pine trees, grown from seed under a previous effort a few years ago, already is growing at Candlewood Ridge, she said.
Another area, the "state-owned Candlewood Hill Wildlife Management Area, has over 40 acres of pitch pines, arguably the largest in the state,” she added. GOSA has an agreement with DEEP to steward the property, and had commissioned appraisals and raised matching funds to save the property, she said.
GOSA, among others, helped the Friends of the Oswegatchie Hills with advice on pitch pine growing techniques, Decker said.
Adams, who reached out to the Saratoga Tree Nursery in New York for advice, is germinating seedlings in a small greenhouse. While the drought took its toll on some seedlings planted last summer in Candlewood Ridge, others survived and he plans to plant more this year.
"We're just going to keep at it and at it and at it until we finally get that area restored to what it truly should be," Adams said.
Ensuring a healthy ecosystem
Heller pointed out that biodiversity of trees is important to protect against the effects of climate change and the trees are valuable resources for clean air and drinking water.
Earlier in his career, Decker became involved with osprey restoration. He said in 1974 there were only seven pairs of nesting ospreys in Connecticut. But over the four decades of building artificial osprey nesting platforms along with dedicated individuals and DEEP, ospreys are now thriving in Connecticut.
“I’ve observed the positive results of this conservation effort and know those who choose to do something can make a difference,” he said.
While he said the group’s efforts may be small, if they can get other people interested, just as Gluck did with him, then maybe they “can help restore this dwindling species to ensure a healthy ecosystem.”
The pitch pines are part of the area’s heritage and they need to be protected and conserved for the sake of the environment, Friends of the Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve President Kris Lambert said. “You’re trying to preserve the land for the future and have the knowledge there for the future,” she said. “You lose that, and you’ve lost everything.”
The more groups working on the goal of preserving pitch pines, the larger impact it will have, Lambert pointed out.
“The pieces are kind of like a jigsaw puzzle and if every land trust, every environmental group is doing its best to preserve its section, hopefully they start overlapping and interlocking,” she said.
Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.