By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — Critics and supporters of a massive cutting and thinning of Winnekenni Park’s forest agree on this much: The obliteration of the wooded landscape is a shocking site.
Many neighbors of the sprawling park off Route 110 have contacted city officials and The Eagle-Tribune to question why so many hemlock trees were cut and removed.
City Council will discuss the matter Tuesday at its 7 p.m. meeting in City Hall.
Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien said she put the matter on the agenda after receiving many calls and emails from residents upset about all the trees that were removed from the forest at the popular city-owned park, which has hundreds of acres.
Haverhill Conservation Agent Rob Moore and the city’s forest management consultant are expected to brief the council on the tree-cutting project at the meeting.
Councilor Thomas Sullivan, a park neighbor and longtime member of the Winnekenni Foundation, said the company hired by the city to thin the forest had no choice but to remove most trees east of Kenoza Lake because they were infected with woolly adelgids — a tree-killing insect that feed on hemlocks, causing needles to drop, branches to rot and trees to die.
“There was no choice but to cut acres of dead hemlocks,” Sullivan said. “Had we done something 15 years ago, maybe we could have introduced a beetle that would have killed the adelgids before it got so bad. But we were too late. These trees were becoming a fire hazard and public safety problem because they were all falling down.”
In a letter published this month in The Eagle-Tribune, Owen and Rhonda Reynolds of Haverhill said the thinning of the east side of Winnekenni Park “has resulted in utter and wanton destruction of a large area of a beautiful forest with peaceful trails used by thousands of walkers, joggers and mountain bikers every year.”
“We are dumbfounded that Mayor James Fiorentini, the Audubon Society’s Ecological Extension Service and the city’s Conservation and Forest Management Committees signed off on this,” the letter read.
Andy Gonios of Groveland Street is another resident who has questioned the scope of the tree cutting.
“It’s missing an awful lot of trees,” Gonios said of an area of the park near Northern Essex Community College.
Sullivan said critics of the tree-cutting don’t realize how bad the situation with the diseased hemlock trees had become.
“I also was shocked the first time I saw how much they cut,” Sullivan said. “It’s jarring. But it had to be done. All the trees had to go. There were none to save. But all the people who are upset now will be happy with how the forest looks in 15 years.”
While the city was too late to save the trees, Sullivan said the city acted soon enough that the timber was still valuable.
Sullivan said the company that cut the trees did not not charge the city for the work, but took the timber in exchange. The company even paid the city $12,000 for the wood, he said.
Sullivan said he recently spoke to someone who works for another tree-cutting company who told him the job would have cost at least $200,000 had the timber not been salvageable.
“Had we waited much longer, there would have been no good wood and the city would have had to pay to regenerate the forest,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said he is planning to contact school officials to try to arrange for students to visit the park to document the forest’s regeneration and plant trees on Arbor Day.