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Rare Salamanders Threatened by DCR's Cutting Plan


On Saturday, January 12, 2019 the Wendell State Forest Alliance held a Rally to Save
Our Oaks at the Wendell State Forest Ranger Station. Oaks are not the only living things being
affected by the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s cutting plan for this 117.6-acre
section of the forest that straddles Montague Road at Brook Road in Wendell.

 

One of the many things I love about Wendell is the community’s almost universal respect for the
wildlife with whom we share our neck of the woods. We put up turtle crossing signs, and, on
warm, rainy spring nights, we grab ponchos and flashlights and head out to carry frogs, toads and
salamanders safely across roads during the annual amphibian migration.

 

The large vernal pool in the Wendell State Forest just to the northeast of the Brook Road -
Montague Road intersection is the breeding habitat of several amphibian species, including the
Jefferson Salamander, a Species of Special Concern under the Massachusetts Endangered
Species Act. (1) While the presence of Jeffs has not been general knowledge, Wendell’s herp
fans are proud that our tiny town is one of only 51 towns in the state with officially-recognized
Jefferson Salamander populations.

 

Because of this vernal pool this section of Montague Road is one of the busiest amphibian
crossings in Wendell. And it’s not just in the Spring. According to Mass Wildlife’s Natural
Heritage Endangered Species Program (NHESP), Jefferson salamanders are terrestrially active in
both the Spring and Fall. (2) This past fall, however, contractors for the state Department of
Conservation and Recreation brought heavy equipment onto the rain-soaked ground and began
cutting the trees.

 

In its Jefferson Salamander fact sheet, NHESP recommends that wetlands with Jefferson
Salamander populations be given a 1,000-foot buffer zone where “forest loss/fragmentation, road
traffic, soil compaction, and introduction/growth of invasive, non-native vegetation” should be
kept to a minimum. The fact sheet goes on to say, “… to guard against the introduction and
spread of amphibian pathogens and infectious disease … [visitors] should adopt and promote
appropriate equipment-sanitation procedures …” (1)

 

The recommendations in NHESP’s fact sheet are not laws and so do not carry the weight of the
state’s Wetlands Protection Act or the Wendell Wetlands Protection Bylaw. Our bylaw requires
a 200-foot buffer zone, to which the DCR plan does adhere, but by NHESP’s standards these
laws are inadequate where rare species are concerned.

 

Nor are the contractors required to sanitize their tires, and boots, etc., which is as yet the only
defense against emerging amphibian diseases, including the chytrid fungus. This deadly
pathogen is driving amphibian species to extinction in warmer climates. Scientists hypothesize
that it may have been kept in check by New England’s cooler temperatures, but that defense is
likely to disappear as climate change progresses.

 

Wickett Pond, which abuts the cutting area to the northeast, is also state-recognized rare species
habitat. (2) In addition, visitors to the site have found two potential vernal pools near the center
of the cutting area that have yet to be surveyed for the obligate species that would allow state
certification.

 

Citing a study in the journal Ecosphere, in 2014 The New York Times reported that salamanders
also play an important role in carbon sequestration by eating leaf-shredding insects:
Leaf litter from deciduous trees is on average 47.5 percent carbon, which tends to be
released into the atmosphere, along with methane, when the shredding invertebrates shred
and eat them … If there aren’t as many shredders at work (because salamanders ate them)
and the leaves remain in place, uneaten, they are covered by other leaves … The
anaerobic environment under those layers preserves the carbon until it can be captured by
the soil, a process called humification. (3)

 

As humanity’s knowledge about ecology grows, it is slowly dawning on us how much our well
being is interwoven inextricably with that of our fellow creatures and the ecosystems we all
inhabit. Unfortunately, recent news reports tell us that humans have wiped out about 60% of the
Earth’s wildlife, primarily by destroying habitat. “Freshwater habitats are the worst hit,” The
Guardian reported on October 30, “with populations having collapsed by 83%.” (4) Wouldn’t it
be nice if this section of the Wendell State Forest could remain a safe haven for wildlife in what
is for them an otherwise inhospitable world?

 

Mary Thomas
Wendell

 

Sources:
(1) https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2017/01/ru/ambystoma-jeffersonianum.pdf
(2) DCR’s Forest Cutting Plan for Montague & Brook roads in Wendell, file #319.9744.18, Date
Rec’d 1/25/18
(3) https://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/08/science/salamanders-hefty-role-in-the-forest.html
(4) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/30/humanity-wiped-out-animals-since-
1970-major-report-finds

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