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Home » SCIENCE AND NATURE in CT » CONNECTICUT (all topics) » The Connecticut Ecosystem
The Connecticut Ecosystem

Part 7 - The Importance of Forests

By Mark B. Oliver | October 27, 2010

Previous Article in this Series

Preserving the natural landscape, water resources, village centers, birds and even Lyme Disease are all interrelated in our fragile ecosystem as we discover in the final part of this series.

Forests are often regarded simply as places to hike, watch birds or cut logs.   In fact they are complex ecosystems that are vital to the wellbeing of not just wildlife but rural and urban populations.

A Butterfly on the Edge of a Forest

Forest habitats are perhaps the most difficult to conserve as Patrick Comins of The National Audubon Society explains.   “Forests need to be large intact systems of at least 10,000 acres.   Even a small viable forest will cross numerous municipal, county and state lines and will involve an even greater number of private landowners. Conservation requires an integrated approach using easements, zoning and appropriate policy decisions together with owner outreach.”

Connecticut has unprecedented population levels living alongside many functional resources and ecosystems.   People and landscapes are generally more segregated, yet in Connecticut they are more intermixed than the norm.

The Cockaponset Triangle is a large unfragmented forest landscape, which stretches roughly from Lake Galliard at one corner, to the ‘Preserve Property’ in the East to the Maromas area in Middletown.   It represents 10,000’s of acres of land where the forest cover is nearly 80% and is a vitally important forest ecosystem.   There have been recent successes in helping preserve the Triangle, such as the recent preservation of the Goss Property.

A Connecticut Forest Glade

A common misconception is that Connecticut has more forest than at any time in its history, however as conservationists such as Patrick are well aware, this is not the case. “Deforestation occurred on a massive scale when Europeans settled in the East and by the mid 19th Century, there was very little local forest habitat left intact.   As agricultural production began to migrate west, forests recovered up until the outbreak of the Second World War.   Since then forest landscapes have been reducing and the rate of reduction has increased considerably over the last 20 years.”

The Center of Land Use Education and Research conducted a study on Connecticut land use between 1985 and 2006.   In that time developed land in the state increased by 144.8 square miles, an increase of 2.9% of the total land available.   Meanwhile 175.1 square miles of forest were lost which is nearly 6% of Connecticut’s forests.

New Preston Town Center, Connecticut

Watersheds require protection and forests are a cheap and sustainable means of doing so.   Many of the remaining forests are around water supply areas and they protect the supply from contaminants.   If forests are lost in these vital areas then water filtration systems will be required to replace them, massively increasing the cost of development.

Forests are carbon sinks in that they remove more carbon from the air than they excrete.   As forests reduce and development increases, so does carbon production and areas that were formerly carbon sinks become carbon sources, increasing overall carbon levels.   This problem is exacerbated by development across a wide area.   A classic example is the construction of out of town retail parks.   These require greater energy infrastructure (such as longer power lines and more generators).   Residents have to burn more gas in their cars, and the more spread out the development the harder it is to incorporate suitable mass transit solutions.   Concentrated developments are key as are the protection and preservation of town centers.

A Wind Turbine

Renewable energy resources, such as wind turbines, solar electric and hydro-electric power will reduce carbon emissions as will the use of so called ‘smart grids’ but these are most effective in concentrated areas.   These green energy ‘solutions’ are not without potential environmental impact.

The generation of hydro-electric power can prevent fish, such as salmon and herring, from swimming upstream.   This not only affects the populations of the fish who are unable to reach their breeding habitats but also the wider ecosystem as a whole.   Salmon are a ‘keystone species’ one on which every part of the ecosystem relies to some extent.   Salmon store organic nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) from the ocean in their bodies.   Upon returning to their inland mating grounds they breed and die.   Their carcasses feed insects, bears, plants, trees and other fish.   It has been estimated that just 5% to 7% of the historical biomass of salmon is returning to their native watersheds.

An Illustration of a Passenger Pigeon

The Passenger Pigeon

The reduction in available forested areas can be devastating to wildlife.   The passenger pigeon was one of the most abundant species on the planet, migrating in huge flocks across the United States and occasionally to Mexico and Cuba.   They lived in forested areas and their colonies stretched over hundreds of square miles, with up to a hundred nests in a single tree.   The passenger pigeon is now extinct with the last known captive bird, Martha, dying on September 1, 1914.

Two main factors appear to be behind the extinction of the passenger pigeon; commercial exploitation of pigeon meat on a massive scale and deforestation.   A large flock would consist of hundreds of thousands of birds and predators would be satiated without making any significant impact on population size.   As forests dwindled so did the number of passenger pigeons who could no longer rely on population density for protection.   Predators (such as man, wolves, foxes and hawks) reduced population numbers to unsustainable levels.

The Bullseye Lyme Disease Rash

The passenger pigeon ate mast (such as acorns, beechnuts, chestnuts, hickory nuts, various fruits and grains) and insects.   When these birds disappeared there was less competition for the mast and mice and deer flourished.   Mice carry the bacteria responsible for Lyme disease and dears are hosts for black-legged ticks which also carry this bacteria.   The extinction of the passenger pigeon seems likely to be at least one of the causes behind the rapid spread of Lyme disease.

Forest ecosystems are naturally diverse, yet early successional forest habitat (cleared land that is replaced by grass, shrubs and young trees in succession) is becoming increasingly rare.   These habitats are a natural part of a forest as floods, fires and heavy winds clear expanses of woodland.   Species which rely on these habitats, such as the blue winged warbler are declining as a result.   Sustainable and viable economic based industry, such as logging, maple syrup and witch-hazel production can improve the health of forest ecosystems by reintroducing areas of successional habitat.

Connecticut’s tourism industry relies heavily on its natural beauty and fall foliage and without diverse and healthy forests there is likely to be a profound impact on Connecticut’s economy.

Reducing carbon footprints and chemicals used in gardens, planting native species and growing butterfly gardens will assist the conservation effort.   Removing invasive species from property is also key and The Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group works in association with landowners to help achieve this.

Each element of our surroundings from our rivers, natural habitats, developments and wildlife must be balanced if the wider ecosystem is not only going to endure but thrive.

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