If A Tree Falls In The Woods… New Partnership Puts It To Good Use

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Aging , Conservation

Collaborating on the firewood project are (from left) Emily Mitchell from the council on aging, Katherine Garofoli of AmeriCorps Cape Cod and Connor O’Brien of the Harwich Conservation Trust. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

EAST HARWICH — The various tracts of land preserved by the Harwich Conservation Trust are home to more than just peaceful walking trails, great views and wildlife habitat. They’re a storehouse of naturally downed trees. A new partnership with the Trust, AmeriCorps Cape Cod and the Harwich Council on Aging aims to put some of that wood to good use heating local homes.

The project was the idea of HCT Land Stewardship director Connor O’Brien, who is overseeing habitat restoration on the former Kendrick Farm on the Trust’s Pleasant Bay Woodlands property. Until about 100 years ago, most of Cape Cod was farmland, often clear-cut for pastures. When it became disused, the rolling Kendrick Farm began to revert to forest land, as much of the Cape's open space has done over the last century. Invasive plant species tend to thrive in such early-succession forest environments, O’Brien noted, and while most people think of nuisance species like bittersweet and multiflora rose, not all invasives are shrubs and vines.

Black locust trees are native to the Americas but not to Cape Cod, O’Brien said. They were brought here because they grow very rapidly, stabilizing banks and providing a supply of very hard wood that is rot-resistant. It was a favorite for farmers who used it not just for firewood but to make fence posts and other building materials. Black locusts sprout vigorously from seeds and from roots, “so they can take over an area really quickly,” he said. But those fast-growing roots don’t tend to hold well to the Cape’s sandy soil, so they’re notorious for falling in high winds.

In seeking to restore habitat for eastern bluebirds and other meadow-loving species, HCT had a black locust problem at its Pleasant Bay Woodlands tract. A number of the trees, some with large-diameter trunks, have died and fallen, and crews from AmeriCorps Cape Cod came with chainsaws and chopped them up. Because they’ve been down for some time, the logs are fully seasoned and ready to split.

“Eventually we’ll try to get rid of as many of the black locusts as possible, and this will be a nice, open, really sunny meadow,” O’Brien said. They weren’t interested in trying to sell the wood, and while some volunteered to come and remove small quantities, it would have been a piecemeal approach to removing the logs.

“We really wanted to kind of just clear it out and get it out of our meadow,” he said. Harwich Conservation Agent Amy Usowski encouraged O’Brien to have a conversation with Council on Aging Director Emily Mitchell about finding a way to put the wood to use.

“We do work with a lot of folks who use wood either as a primary or secondary heat source, and the winter is long and cold,” Mitchell said. If they could find a suitable way to split, transport and distribute the wood, “it would make all the difference to a lot of folks in our community,” she said.

AmeriCorps Cape Cod Program manager Katherine Garofoli said the project was a worthy one for AmeriCorps, which employs college- and post-college-age young people for public projects in conservation and disaster preparedness. Part of their land management training involves the safe use of chainsaws to handle downed trees. A working party of around 14 members and two supervisors will converge on the property, and using two rented log splitters, will convert the logs and downed trunks into an estimated five cords of split, ready-to-burn firewood.

“Otherwise, these trees would just be left on the property,” Garofoli said. “It’s really special that the byproduct of these downed trees can go to people that could need assistance in terms of heating their homes,” she said. The AmeriCorps members will be bringing chainsaw expertise and plenty of youthful elbow grease.

“It can be really challenging for older people to load wood up into their vehicles,” she said. “The AmeriCorps members are very excited and able to help people get their wood where it needs to go.”

Though the exact system is still being worked out, it is likely that some of the wood will be loaded into recipients’ vehicles for them to take home, and some will be delivered by volunteer drivers. The distribution is being coordinated by Mitchell – and it’s not just for seniors.

“I think probably our reach extends more to seniors, and of course a huge segment of our population is seniors,” the council on aging director said. “But young folks, families, working folks, anyone who can use it, we’re ready to take your name and coordinate that process.” Though HCT will also accept donations, the wood is being offered for free. People interested in receiving wood can call Mitchell at 508-430-7550 or email emitchell@town.harwich.ma.us.

“People have been really through-the-roof excited about this,” Mitchell said. “It seems to be too good to be true, so I love telling them, ‘Nope, it’s real.’”