Week In The Woods

by by Barry Elkinton & Rick Salame


A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Etc.

Trees these days just seem to be everywhere. Casuarina and Nyssa; Robina and Salix—no matter how hard we try to chop ‘em down, they just keep growing, making our cities into forests, backyards into marshes. On February 5, non-profit group American Forests honored these overgrowths by announcing the top ten US cities with urban forests—New York and Washington, DC, Sacramento, Seattle, and Portland, and a few notables in between, like Austin, Charlotte, Denver, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis—a motley crew, to be sure.

An urban forest, as American Forrest defines it, is an ecosystem “‘composed of trees and other vegetation that provide[s] cities and municipalities with environmental, economic, and social benefits,” like improved air quality, water system management, and energy use reduction. National Urban forests have been estimated to contain 3.8 billion trees and store 770 million tons of carbon per year. It’s a little bitty ecosystem; that potted plant on your street corner may have purified the water you drank this morning.

Winning cities were chosen not only for the acreage of their green spaces, but also for their community engagement programs and for their plans to maintain forests in the future. Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to plant one million trees in New York City by 2017, for example, is already halfway to completion. Volunteer work and private donations have played a large part in the success of that plan. Another winner, Portland, Oregon—formerly nicknamed “Stumptown” because of miles of land left barren by destructive logging—now has 1.4 million trees. Portland officials aim to eventually cover 33 percent of their city’s surface area with vegetation. Providence, meanwhile, hasn’t quite caught up with the trend. Maybe it’s time for the city to tap back into its roots.—EG

Squirrel Slam Slammed

On Saturday, February 16, around 4,000 people will gather in the Village of Holley, NY to shoot the town’s squirrels, and perhaps win an assault rifle in the process. At least that’s the plan according to the town’s volunteer fire department, which is hosting its 7th annual “Hazzard Country Squirrel Slam” contest. For a mere ten dollars, you can team up with a buddy and compete for cash prizes against other competitors running around town in a quest to see who can shoot the heaviest squirrels in the land.

Now, there are a few rules to keep in mind. Don’t shoot any black squirrels: “REDS AND GREYS ONLY,” reads the fire department’s webpage. And remember, “no internal packing or soaking of squirrels for added weight!!!!” Other than that, have at it. Whichever team shoots the five combined heaviest squirrels takes home 200 dollars. Plus, when the smoke clears, the fire department’s going to raffle off an AR/22 semiautomatic assault rifle and a .50 caliber muzzleloader-a true frontier classic-which should be able to take out any land mammal in North America, beached whales notwithstanding. And don’t forget, kids under 14 have their own divisional prizes.

Apparently the last six contests were a real blast, and went off without a hitch. This year, though, animal rights groups and gun control advocates have seized upon the event as paradigmatic of all that is wrong with gun and hunting culture in America. As of February 12, over 20,000 people have signed online petitions calling for the hunt to be canceled, and almost 3,700 dollars have been donated to a fund that will be given to the fire department in lieu of holding the contest. While some people just really like squirrels, most protesters are decrying the optics of rewarding preteens with money and assault weapons for shooting squirrels, especially in the wake of the shooting in Newtown, CT. “It’s bad on so many levels,» said state representative Tony Avella, a Democrat from Queens who joined Friends of Animals at a press conference in Albany to protest the event. “A poor little squirrel getting a nut and probably coming up to the individual to try and be friendly — and then the kid pulls out a gun and shoots it.”

But the folks of Holley remain unphased by the downstate naysayers, and the fire department is adamant about the event continuing. The contest is totally legal-children as young as 12 can hunt in New York-and the department will be checking hunting licenses. Plus, all downed squirrels will be used for pelts and meat. “There’s a lot of people locally that spend time with their families and come do this hunt,” Fire Chief Pete Hendrickson told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. “It’s like a fishing derby, and the only difference is it’s with squirrels.”—BE

Bad Neighbors

Hiking in summertime New England, when the foliage is thick, one can usually maintain the illusion of being “away-from-it-all.” It’s in the winter, when the deciduous trees are denuded, that houses appear and the imagined continuity of the forest is broken. Of course, if your patch of heaven is bisected by I-95, like Rhode Island’s Big River Management Area is, then it’s hard to pretend you’re anywhere other than the country’s second most densely populated state, unless you wear earplugs.

Disrupting continuous stretches of forest, a process called fragmentation, is problematic, to say the least. According to the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), fragmentation “has the potential to change local water cycles, reduce critical wildlife habitat, increase disturbances, and foster the invasion of exotic plant species.” And there’s no doubt that Rhode Island is highly fragmented. A 1998 joint study by the DEM and the US Department of Agriculture found that there is only one place in the state where a person can stand and be over a mile away from the nearest road. Well, technically, a person can’t stand there. That place is the middle of the Scituate Reservoir. This fragmentation speaks to a pervasive blurring of the boundaries between human settlement and forest. That may explain how such a densely populated state can still be among the most heavily forested in the nation, with forests covering approximately 60 percent of its land area, according to the same study.

The loss of ecological diversity that comes with fragmentation is bad enough, but there might be a more immediate cause for concern following the recent blizzard. According to ecoRI, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation deposits between 80 and 300 pounds of salt and sand on each mile of roadway that it de-ices. Splashing, runoff, wind, and snow plows transfer this salt to the soil nearby, threatening trees as far as 60 feet away, according to a study on the effects of road de-icing on trees by Wayne Clatterbuck of the University of Tennessee. Salt absorbed by trees is moved to the extremities, where it inhibits bud and leaf growth, or kills the affected limbs altogether. Younger trees often cannot survive the loss of a limb. So take the good news about our percentage of forested land with a grain of salt. After all, most of Rhode Island’s trees are probably within 60 feet of some road or another.—RS