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Reclaiming the Native Forest from Invasive Plants

This field adjacent to Farm Brook  Reservoir provides a pastoral view as framed by West Rock Ridge in summer 2015. The Red Trail formerly crossed this field, although the path is difficult to discern, and there were no blazes because there was nothing to blaze.
 In February 2016, without any notice, the state cut the nearly 100-year old bitternut hickory tree in the middle of the meadow that locals called the Field of Dreams. The state has blocked off access to the field, saying the tree was removed in the interest of creating a wildlife habitat. There were also concerns about the area being a hang-out for local youth with resulting problems of litter, plus a brush fire in summer 2015. The signs the state posted by the field said the trail was relocated to create the habitat. Actually, I relocated the trail to provide a better experience for hikers, and the state is now using the trail as a way to keep people out of the meadow. Several people have seen me doing trail work in the area, and have lamented the loss of the tree. The signs may not be there when you visit the area because they are regularly torn down by people upset about the state's actions.
According to the legislation that created the park, the state is required to work with the West Rock Ridge Advisory Council, which has representatives from the four towns in which the park is located: New Haven, Hamden, Woodbridge, and Bethany. The West Rock Ridge Park Association, the group of volunteers that worked to pass the legislation to create the park, has called upon the state to plant a new tree. The park association is also asking the state for a copy of its wildlife plan for the meadow. An article about the controversy entitled "Loss of Tree Sparks Emotion, Anger in Hamden" was written by Katherine Jurgens and published in the New Haven Register on Feb. 10, 2016.
"Cutting the Tree Was a Ridiculous Thing to Do" was a Letter to the Editor written by Michael Gherlone of North Haven in response to the article and published in the New Haven Register on Feb. 10, 2016.
"CT DEEP Fells Beloved Bitternut Tree: Leaves Bitterness in Its Place" is commentary written by Peter Sagnella of Hamden, and posted on CT Viewpoints on Feb. 15, 2016, lamenting the loss of the tree.  

Click the title to access the links. 
Somewhere in the band of trees, the Red Trail used to enter the woods.
Can you tell where? Probably not from this distance.
When I first started volunteering at West Rock in 2007, Lori Lindquist, the park supervisor at the time, asked me if I could create a trail that ran along the Farm Brook Reservoir. I walked through the woods near the shore of the reservoir and reported back to Lori that it was not a good place to build a trail. The ground was very soft and uneven, and as I got closer to the dam, there was no easy path to follow. I abandoned the idea, since there seemed to be no practical solution.
Fast forward eight years to 2015. In January 2015, while another trails crew member and I were cutting the vines off the Red-White Trail, about 200 feet away from the reservoir and adjacent to the open field by Hill Street, I made an interesting discovery. After cutting back all the vines and some other invasives, I noticed that there was what appeared to be an old farm road running through the woods alongside a wide stone wall. Paralleling the stone wall were remnants of a barbed wire fence, clearly indicating this area was once used for pasture.

After removing the invasive Asiatic bittersweet vines from this area of woods along a long stone wall near the Red-White Trail and the open field off Hill Street, it became obvious this would be a good location for a trail. This photo shows the trail after it has been cleared, raked and blazed, August 2015.
Problems of Having a Trail Through a Field
This discovery created the opportunity to resolve several long-standing problems with the Red Trail in that area of the park. The Red Trail runs north from Mountain Road along a wide gravel road that the state created to get access to the dam for maintenance purposes. The gravel road ends abruptly at the dam to the Farm Brook Reservoir, leaving the Red Trail to continue unmarked across the grassy field.
The problem with the Red Trail was that once you got to the end of the gravel road, there was no clear indication of where the trail went. There is a well-worn dirt footpath through the field that is about a foot wide, but by midsummer, when the grass is waist high and leaning over the path, it is very difficult to follow. Through the field, the footpath forks several times with one fork headed for the Red-White Trail, a second fork headed to the tree with the swing in the center of the field, and a third fork that actually leads to the woods where the red blazes resume.
There is obviously nothing to blaze because the area is just grassland. Putting in posts would solve the problem of where to blaze, but it creates an obstacle when it comes time to mow the field. Going through the field also raises the concern of picking up ticks as hikers and bicyclists brush against the grasses.

Prior to the placement of the Red Trail in the woods by Farm Brook Reservoir, trail users would come to the end of the gravel road by the dam and have no clear idea of which way the trail went through the field, as seen in this photo from July 2015.
 The wide path across the dam created additional uncertainty.
When the trail relocation was opened, at the end of the gravel road by Farm Brook Reservoir, a post indicates hikers should continue straight to remain on the Red Trail. The path is clearer since the autumn olive has been cut back. The cut autumn olive has a blaze indicating hikers should turn right to enter the woods, about 100 feet past where the gravel road ends, August, 2015.
This partially cleared section of the Red Trail near Farm Brook Reservoir showed all the autumn olive that needed to be cut for the trail, July 2015. Once cut, the autumn olive promptly resprouts and can soon be seen with numerous branches and leaves.
Turning into the woods just past the Farm Brook Reservoir Dam, autumn olive lines both sides of the new trail. Over time this autumn olive will be removed, August, 2015.
Invasive Species Had Choked Out the Woods
Moving the Red Trail to higher ground within the woods adjoining Farm Brook Reservoir, but not near the reservoir shore, was not an easy task. The area around Farm Brook Reservoir is heavily impacted by invasive plant species. There is a great deal of light in this area, as a result of the open canopy created by the water and the adjoining field. Invasive plant species thrive in bright light conditions. In this area are found three widespread invasive plant species: autumn olive, multi-flora rose, and the Asiatic bittersweet vine.
Autumn olive is a shrub that can grow to 20 feet in height. It lines the field all along the area of the reservoir, and also up the hill toward the woods. Also along the edge of the fields are endless rows of bittersweet vines threading their way around trees. Closer to the reservoir are sprawling groups of sharp-thorned multi-flora rose bushes that can reach 15 feet up into trees.

Multiple, multi-flora rose bushes blocked the potential path of the Red Trail. The clear section in the front was once blanketed by multi-flora rose bushes, July 2015.
The metal post at right provides a guide to the view.
Additional multi-flora rose bushes have been cleared to create the Red Trail, with a stand of autumn olive in the distance, with a metal post as a guide to the view, late July 2015.
The harm these invasives cause is quite visible. There are several very large dead trees near the reservoir, which have diameters about two feet each. Each tree is completely encircled by bittersweet vines. The autumn olive and the multi-flora rose choke out the smaller trees and shrubs because the invasive plants grow in such dense thickets.
The vines twist around whatever they can grab onto, including ironically both autumn olive and multi-flora rose bushes. The vines grow up into the trees and overshadow the canopy with their leaves, smothering the trees as well. All three compete in the soil with the native trees and shrubs for nutrients, water and space.
I have done some modest pruning back over the years in this area, attacking all these invasives. However, there are so many invasive plants in this area that it would be a full-time job trying to clear out all of them.

A gigantic Asiatic bittersweet vine resembles a giant squid with tentacles encircling a large rock. The smaller vines with their leaves were cleared from the top of the larger vines prior to taking this picture.
A large sandstone boulder has been freed from the tentacles of the bittersweet vines. The sedimentary rock sandstone is not a common rock at West Rock, since the park is mostly comprised of diabase, an igneous rock that is similar to basalt.
This wall of invasive and prickly multi-flora rose shrubs hides a sandy slope over which the Red Trail would climb. The area was cleared of other multi-flora rose to reveal this large and definitely invasive Asiatic bittersweet vine, June 2015.
A sandy slope near Farm Brook Reservoir is faintly visible underneath the multi-flora rose bushes, after these invasive shrubs have been partially cleared, July 2015.

A sandy slope near Farm Brook Reservoir is partially visible when the multi-flora rose shrubs have been cut back even further, July 2015.
The path is clear up the sandy slope next to Farm Brook Reservoir
when the multi-flora rose bushes have been cut back even further, August, 2015.

Building the Trail Relocation
The snow and ice in late winter kept us out of the woods until the end of April 2015. From April through August 2015, both individually and with willing volunteers over repeated visits, we gradually hacked our way through the jungle of invasives. It was literally a foot-by-foot battle to cut our way through dense and seemingly endless thickets of multi-flora rose and autumn olive. The other part of creating this trail was cutting back lots of poison ivy lining the ground along what is now the trail.
Along the way there were bittersweet vines that were twisted in and among the multi-flora rose and autumn olive, in effect tying them together. Those vines made it very difficult and time-consuming to cut through this area because of all the cutting that needed to be done. There is one day I was out there for six hours and all I was able to do was cut through two multi-flora rose bushes.
Whether dealing with autumn olive or multi-flora rose, the basic technique was the same. Cut a branch or cane, and then walk backwards pulling it out of the trees and dumping it along the side of the trail. We would then go back and repeat the technique endlessly, since the shrubs have branches and canes that go in all directions, with each cane and branch having numerous smaller canes and branches. This is how they create the dense shade that shades out the native shrubs and trees.

A pile of brush alongside the new section of the Red Trail in July 2015 shows how many invasive plants needed to be cleared to create the trail. This pile consists of autumn olive limbs, multi-flora rose canes, and Asiatic bittersweet vines.

The brown leaves of cut Asiatic bittersweet vines in the woods near Farm Brook Reservoir show the extent to which these vines can affect trees, July 2015.
There were plenty of bittersweet vines to cut and uproot as best we could. We would return a week later to find all three plants already sending up shoots to grow back from the roots. Of course, we would cut those promptly.
There were areas where the only native plants were the desirable Virginia creeper and native grape vines. Also found were noxious poison ivy, and sharp-thorned greenbrier. Where there were trees, the lower limbs were dead because they had been shaded out by all of the invasives.
We did also make some positive discoveries besides the Virginia creeper and grape vines. Amidst all the invasives we found occasional native trees and shrubs. These included a large witch hazel shrub, a small spicebush, numerous small sassafras trees, some small to medium-sized cherry trees, plus some large oak and maple trees.
This nasty-looking barbed wire used to line the fields near the Hill Street parking lot. I carefully cut and removed it from areas near the Red and Red-White Trails. There is still some lining the stone walls in off-trail areas, so this is a good incentive to stay on the trail!
A native Northern spicebush shrub is one of the survivors, despite being almost completely choked out by invasive multi-flora rose shrubs, July 2015.

Enjoying the New Section of the Red Trail
The resulting Red Trail is a pleasant stroll through mostly shady woods that was blazed and open to users by late August 2015. The trail corridor is about eight feet wide in most places, and is still lined by invasive plants on both sides. It will be an ongoing project over the next few years to continue to cut back through the autumn olive and multi-flora rose. I do not want to do denude area by trying to tackle all of them at once.
The long-term hope is that as these are cut back and any new growth is controlled that the native trees and shrubs will reseed the area naturally.
One other benefit to removing all of the invasives is that it will open up additional views of the reservoir from the trail. I have absolutely no intentions to cut back anything native for this purpose, but the natives naturally have more openings them invasives do, so that will provide the desired reservoir views.
As compared to the field, the new trail through the woods is a much-improved alternative. It goes to the woods so there are plenty of trees to blaze, and due to the dense thicket of invasives on the edges plus the wall it is easy to follow. The trail follows the contours of the terrain, so it is gently rolling in most places.

The Red Trail north of the Red-White Trail was a wall of multi-flora rose
overlain with native grape vines prior to its clearing in August 2015.

When the wall of invasive multi-flora rose has been removed, a narrow trail winds through the Virginia creeper. Since the multi-flora rose choked out any younger trees, a metal post and a cedar post mark the way, September 2015.
Phase Two of this project involved removing the invasive plants on the Hill Street parking lot side of the Red-White Trail to connect the new section of the Red Trail to the existing section above the field. This project took place in August 2015, and took far less time since the distance was much shorter.
The accomplished goal was to bypass the open field that is crossed by the Red-White Trail and keep the Red Trail completely in the woods. To guide trail users, I installed two posts that I blazed near the Farm Brook Reservoir dam on the Red Trail, one by the open field on the Red-White Trail, and one in the woods just past the Red-White Trail where the multi-flora rose had completely choked out any trees.
The completed Red Trail crosses the Red-White Trail three times: once near the open field by a large rock, once on the slope just above the field, and a final time where the Red Trail heads steadily up the ridge toward the overlook.
As a measure of the challenge involved with building this trail, it required 90 hours of work from me and 50 hours of work from others on a 0.40 mile long section of trail. Had there been no invasive plants to clear, the project probably could have been completed in 20 hours or less.

Clearing a Trail Across a Stone Wall by Farm Brook Reservoir

This series of photos shows the process by which an area by the stone wall was cleared to create the Red Trail.
The approach to an old stone wall near the Farm Brook Reservoir Dam
was blocked  by fallen tree limbs and bittersweet vines, July 2015.

An old stone wall was buried underneath fallen tree limbs,
poison ivy, and bittersweet vines, July 2015.
With all the plants cleared away, the stone wall is revealed, the blazes are painted,
and the trail is open to users, August, 2015

The top of the stone wall is barely visible under a carpet of poison ivy, and framed by autumn olive shrubs, after the autumn olive has been cleared, July 2015.

The top of the stone wall is more visible after additional clearing, July 2015.
With the poison ivy removed, the top of the stone wall is visible, and is framed by the cut limbs of invasive autumn olive shrubs, early August, 2015.

The poison ivy has been cleared away, the blazes have been painted, and the stone wall can be crossed on the Red Trail, August, 2015. Be careful on bicycles because there is a drop-off that is not visible from this perspective heading south.

Autumn Olive Removal Clears the Path
Numerous autumn olive shrubs line the side of what would become the Red Trail near the poison ivy covered tree. The multi-flora rose bushes that were cleared prior to taking this photo can be seen stacked at the left, May 2015.

A fallen tree limb blocks the future path of the Red Trail as it crosses a small stone wall blanketed with poison ivy and Virginia creeper. The tree at left is covered with poison ivy as well. A desirable and native witch hazel shrub can be seen at right, May 2015.

When that same area was cleared, a poison ivy covered tree can be seen at left and can barely be seen in the photo prior to clearing. The cleared area also reveals a native witch hazel shrub with its curved branches draping across the trail, July 2015.

A Walk on the Red Trail Along Farm Brook Reservoir

This sequence of photos shows the Red Trail section along Farm Brook Reservoir that opened to users in August, 2015. These photos are presented starting within the woods just beyond the Farm Brook Reservoir Dam and heading north toward the climb to the ridge. Use the four photos at the top of this page under the heading "Problems of Having a Trail Through a Field" as the starting point for this journey.

After entering the woods and walking about 200 feet, descend over this stone wall. Bicycles should be cautious as the stone wall has steps on the south side.

After crossing the stone wall, descent this slippery, sandy slope
between two multi-flora rose bushes.
After descending the sandy slope, the trail heads north with a stone wall
on the left and  Farm Brook Reservoir on the right.

Continuing with the stone wall on the left, walk past this metal post
and soon come to a view of Farm Brook Reservoir.
Farm Brook Reservoir and its dam can be seen in this view from the Red Trail.
Walk past the poison ivy covered tree and into a sunny area with autumn olive
on the left and multi-flora rose and autumn olive on the right.

Shortly past the open, sunny area, the trail takes a slight turn to the left past this shagbark hickory tree. The field to the left is lined with autumn olive shrubs.

The trail straightens out for a short distance past the hickory tree, again with the stone wall on the right and the autumn olive lining the field on the left.

The trail squeezes through a set of beech trees and turns onto an old farm road with the stone wall continuing on the right, and the autumn olive on the left.

The Red Trail follows an old farm road with a stone wall on the right and the open field to the left, which is separated from the trail by a line of autumn olive shrubs.

The Red Trail takes a sharp turn to the right past these two cedar posts.
After turning past the cedar posts, a stone wall parallels the trail on the right,
while a line of trees is on the left, adjoining the open field.

The Red Trail heads north across the Red-White Trail near the opening to the field. Blazes for the Red-White Trail can be seen at right.

The trail continues past a large stone wall on the left.

The trail crosses the stone wall at a low point.
The trail crosses a driveway that leads on the right to a private right of way.
Stay on the trail and do not walk up the right of way that leads to a home.

After crossing the driveway, the trail ascends a slight slope
and comes to its second crossing of the Red-White Trail.
The Red Trail continues up a gentle slope past the second crossing
of the Red-White Trail in the woods upslope from the open field.
The Red Trail takes a sharp turn as the new section joins with the existing section of trail just above the field. After making the turn and climbing the hill, the Red Trail crosses the Red-White Trail a final time before ascending the ridge to the overlook.

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