By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — Andy Gonios worries about what’s been taking place in the woods behind Northern Essex Community College.
He’s not alone.
A former logger who spent 20 years cutting down trees in New Hampshire, Gonios said he is worried about the removal of bug infested hemlock trees from areas of Winnekenni Park because the project appears to be more extensive than he expected.
Gonios knows the area well. He played in these woods as a kid while growing up on nearby Groveland Street. He said it looks like the forest is being destroyed and that even if it’s necessary to remove the infested trees, he wants the land returned to the way he remembers it.
Gonios, 68, is one of many neighbors of the sprawling park off Route 110 who have contacted city officials and The Eagle-Tribune to question why so many hemlock trees were cut and removed.
City officials said the work is focused on the forest’s hemlock trees east of Kenoza Lake, which are substantially infested with the hemlock woolly adelgid — a tree-killing insect that feeds on hemlocks, an evergreen tree, causing needles to drop, branches to rot and even trees to die.
Officials said the plan that was crafted for the area is being carried out by the same company that Haverhill hired to remove trees from the Clement Farm conservation area last year and that no trees are being cut down that weren’t targeted for removal.
Officials said not removing the trees would pose a public safety hazard in the form of falling trees and branches, potential forest fires and erosion due to “wind thrown trees” — trees knocked over by heavy winds.
“They’ve taken down an awful lot of trees,” Gonios said. “It also looks like they made their own road through the woods and they created a yard where they stack the wood, then haul it away.”
The City Council plans to discuss the matter at its meeting tonight at 7 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 (New England Forestry Consultants) is expected to brief the council on the tree-cutting project at tonight’s meeting.
As part of the city’s Forest Management Plan, tree cutting and harvesting began last month at the Winnekenni Park Conservation Area. Officials said the work is about 75 percent complete. The rest of the cutting will take place at a later date, officials said.
Last October, the city invited the public to a meeting at Winnekenni Castle in the park. The meeting included a site walk of the woodland area proposed for hemlock tree removal. Officials said that only four members of the public showed up, not including members of the city’s Forestry Management Committee.
Timber removed from the property was sold through competitive bidding to Hopkinton Forestry & Land Clearing Inc. of Henniker, N.H., the same company the city hired to harvest trees at Clement Farm last summer. The company used heavy equipment to thin out the forest at the city-owned farm on upper Main Street to make it healthier. In trade for doing the work, the company took most of the trees it cut.
The company also paid the city about $11,000 and provided Haverhill with timber that was sold at auction at the Highway Department yard on Primrose Street.
Moore said the same company is removing trees at Winnekenni Park at no cost to the city and, in addition, is paying the city $11,000 for the timber. He said the money will go into site stabilization measures and to cover the costs of having the city’s consultant closely watch the operation.
Moore told The Eagle-Tribune that he recently responded to several resident complaints about the tree cutting in an effort to clear up what he called common misconceptions about the work.
“The current harvest at Winnekenni Park was never planned or advertised as a thinning,’’ Moore said. “It was planned and permitted as a salvage involving the removal of the hemlock population on the east side of the lake.”
Moore said the problem with this species is that it is infested, not diseased, with an insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid and that it will kill these trees over a range of four to 15 years.
“Our consultant advised us that we were past the mid-point of that range and rapidly declining,” Moore said, noting the salvage operation is a proactive approach.
Moore, a member of the city’s Forest Management Committee, said there is significant oversight associated with the project, which he said is being monitored by the city’s consultant, the Commonwealth’s Service Forester, and several people at the local level.
Gonios said he was invited by Mayor James Fiorentini to be one of those people, but that he declined due to physical problems with his knees that require the use of a cane and limit his mobility on foot.
“I wanted to go into the woods and watch them, but I can’t,” Gonios said.
Moore said that some people have commented that the city isn’t being paid enough for the hemlock. Moore said hemlock is “not a high value tree” and that according to last quarter’s Stumpage report, hemlock was selling for $20 to $40 per 1,000 board feet.
“We are receiving $35,” Moore said.
Moore said another misconception is that Hopkinton Forestry cut down 90 percent of the trees over 150 acres.
“The east side of the lake is only 100 acres,” Moore said. “The plan only proposes work in 50 of those acres and we likely won’t work in all of those, as we make adjustments along the way.”
Moore said these 50 acres are very densely populated with hemlock and the plan calls for the removal of a little over half the basal area across the 50 acres, as well as other poor quality trees that pose a hazard to the public and are within the fall zone of walking paths in the park. The basal area is basically the area covered by tree trunks.
Those interested in learning about how the project came to be can view a short video at www.ci.haverhill.ma.us/departments/forest_stewardship/media.php.
Gonios said he wants to know what the city will do to restore the land once the work is complete. He is particularly concerned with the “skidder trails” that were created so that heavy equipment, called a “skidder,” can pull cut trees from the forest to the landing area for processing.
Moore said the forester (the city’s consultant) lays out trails for the skidder to use so that they don’t just drag cut trees all over the place. He said these paths are typically blended back into the landscape following the completion of work. Without the hemlock, trees such as black birch, maple, oak and pine will naturally reseed the area, Moore said.
Another area Gonios is concerned with is what city officials call the “landing,” a hill with a flat area about 375 feet south of Kenoza Street opposite the rear easterly most entrance to Northern Essex. The site is being used as a base of operations for the tree cutting.
Moore said the plan is to loom and seed the area with a conservation mix that will provide a pocket of habitat for animals such as rabbits.
Councilor Thomas Sullivan, a park neighbor and longtime member of the Winnekenni Foundation, said the city had no choice but to cut acres of dead hemlocks as they were becoming a fire hazard and public safety problem because they were falling down.
Sullivan said he was just as shocked the first time he saw how many trees had been cut down and suggested that the people who are upset now will be happy with how the forest will look in 15 years.
Gonios, of Groveland Street, disagreed with Sullivan.
“It will take a lot longer than that,” he said.