Across from the Pine View Bakery in Shokan, on Route 28, trees are lying helter-skelter on several acres of ground surrounded on three sides by forest. Contrary to rumor, it’s not going to be a parking lot for the forthcoming Ashokan Rail Trail.
Adam Bosch, spokesperson for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), explained that the downed trees are the result of a DEP forestry project that was followed by a freak windstorm. The need for culling and the instability of the trees arose from the planting of 1.5 million pines and spruces around the Ashokan Reservoir, all in a short period during the early 1900s — a recipe for forestry disaster that DEP is now trying to remedy with modern forest management practices.
Trees are an essential element of New York City’s drinking water system, explained Bosch. Through nitrogen uptake, trees filter nutrients out of the soil that can cause an unpleasant taste in water. Old trees are not as efficient at filtration as young, growing trees. Therefore, a forest composed exclusively of 100-year-old trees is not desirable for water quality. A healthy forest contains a variety of species of different ages, making the trees resistant to damage from disease, insects, and extreme weather as well as resilient in recovering from such crises.
Apparently these principles were not understood in 1910, when the reservoir was under construction, and the DEP planted pine and spruce trees six feet apart on approximately 100,000 acres of watershed land. The plantings were never thinned, resulting in a dense forest of trees with weak, short roots. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when local plantations were suffering from a insect pest known as pine needle scale, that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) convinced DEP officials to undertake scientific forestry practices for the health of the land.
“Some foresters have to manage for income,” said Todd Baldwin, one of five foresters currently employed by the DEP. “I get to manage for diversity.” At a site south of the windfalls on Route 28, he pointed to a massive oak that dominates a clearing populated by saplings of varying heights. “A logger would take that tree for lumber,” he said. “I left it up so it could provide seeds for the future.” In 2013, a lot of the elderly conifers at the site were felled to make way for an understory of varied species, which have been allowed to propagate naturally. So far, Baldwin is pleased with the progress of the project. “If we do a light thinning, everything that comes up, the deer will eat,” he explained. “A heavier cut allows us to stay ahead of the deer.”
A similar strategy drove the culling of trees across from the Pine View Bakery, with the addition of clear-cutting a strip along the road, where Hurricane Irene toppled a tree onto the power lines in 2011, causing a week-long power outage in Phoenicia. This February, Central Hudson went in and removed all the trees within 100 feet of the road, in order to protect the power lines, the highway, and the café. DEP simultaneously thinned the remainder of the plot, taking out trees that were not in good shape and leaving enough healthy ones to prevent erosion and nurture the next generation.
But two days after the cutting, winds of 50 to 60 miles per hour struck the area. “When you thin a forest, it changes the path the wind takes through the trees,” said Bosch. “The trees left behind have to harden up and get used to the new wind pattern.” In this case, the trees did not have time to adjust. Due to unseasonally warm weather, the soil had thawed and was saturated with water, increasing the instability of the roots. Many trees were uprooted or snapped in half, resulting in the mess now visible from the road. If the strip along the highway had not been cleared, pointed out Bosch, the windstorm might have caused another power outage.
Science and experience
Six years ago, Baldwin and other DEP foresters inventoried all the land around the city’s reservoirs and came up with a forest management plan. “We never go in willy-nilly,” said Baldwin. “A lot of science and experience goes into setting up and executing these jobs. And we evaluate each project afterwards to make sure we’re getting good results.” Plans go through a lengthy process of scrutiny by experts in wetlands, engineering, and wildlife to prevent negative impacts. The area is home to bald eagles, bog turtles, and endangered wetland amphibians, while two rare bat species live in the treetops. However, the effects of weather are not always predictable, as the Route 28 carnage demonstrated.
The DEP has plans to double its forestry staff, and other projects will be undertaken around the reservoirs. In early July, the fallen trees in Shokan will be removed and, like the ones taken down in February, sold to a sawmill and furniture factory in Dutchess County. “When we cut down trees, we sell them locally,” said Bosch. “We want to support markets for lumber, so people with forested land will be encouraged to maintain it instead of selling it for development.”
Baldwin is ambivalent about removing the windfalls, since there are already new seedlings of red maple, pine, and birch sprouting on the land, and they will be disturbed. But as people keep telling Bosch, “You did this project, and it looks like hell,” while the disturbing visual makes the public’s suspicions run wild. One of his tasks is to educate residents and explain that “we’re not destroying the forest. We’re making it more healthy.”
Water for pizza and bagels
Next week, DEP spokesman Adam Bosch will be interviewed for the TV show “Good Morning, America,” explaining why Catskill Mountain water is responsible for New York City’s great pizza and bagels. “It’s the soft water, low in mineral content,” he said.
Unlike the Croton Reservoir in Westchester, an early part of the city’s water system, the Catskills landscape contains very little limestone to leach into the water. In the 1880s, when New York City was starting to run out of drinking water, the Catskills were selected as the area for new reservoirs partly because of the lack of calcium in the soil and creeks. Croton water was costing millions of dollars in cleanup of calcium deposits on industrial equipment. When the new reservoirs opened, the calcium problem went away overnight.
Culinary experts have noted a side effect of the softer water — it’s ideal for making good dough. In fact, bagel companies and restaurants in Florida and California have been trying to “Brooklynize” their water to enable them to make the light, tasty dough products that New York City is famous for.
If New York City tap water can take the credit for good dough, then the Catskills can take credit for the water, according to Bosch, who gets media requests for information on the topic several times a year.