Becket Land Trust, Berkshires

Merging Forest Management and Wildlife Goals

“This timber harvest will create new habitat for wildlife, including New England cottontails,” said Ken Smith on a gray November afternoon as he looked over a 40-acre cut on the Becket Land Trust’s Historic Quarry and Forest property. “At the same time, it will also help rejuvenate a forest stand that had been harmed by poor timber-cutting practices in the past.”

Conservationists survey New England cottontail habitat site.

Marianne Piché, right, confers with forester Lincoln Fish, left, and Becket Land Trust's Ken Smith at a timber harvest that sets the stage for new habitat to help New England cottontails and other wildlife. (Note brushpile in background.)/C. Fergus

Smith is one of the founders of Becket Land Trust, whose goal is to maintain the rural nature of the Town of Becket in western Massachusetts and to protect and enhance the area’s natural resources. He had joined Lincoln Fish, the land trust’s consulting forester, to look at the timber cut, which had taken place that summer on the trust’s 300-acre preserve, just north of the Massachusetts Turnpike in Berkshire County. The property includes an historic granite quarry, plus 7 miles of hiking and cross-country ski trails, beautiful sylvan vistas, and quiet areas where visitors can contemplate nature and view wildlife.

The tract lies in the Southern Berkshire Focus Area for New England cottontail restoration, and evidence of cottontails has been found close by. Some folks would question how a heavy timber harvest can improve a stand of forest or help the local wildlife, such as cottontails. One way to think about the concept is to visualize wiping off a blackboard: Afterward, you can write a whole new story on it.

Correcting Past Practices

Fish explained: “In the past, this timber stand had been subjected to high-grading,” a short-sighted type of timber cutting in which the best trees are taken, leaving less-desirable specimens to continue growing. On this part of the Historic Quarry and Forest, a high concentration of small beech trees had sprouted, their aggressive root systems outcompeting seedlings of other tree species. Many of the older beeches were infected with beech bark disease, which usually kills the trees and renders them useless as lumber.

Barren forest understory before timber harvest to help New England cottontails.

Before timber harvest, sparse forest understory offered little food or cover to wildlife. Soon, new young trees will cloak the site./M. Piché

Because the understory on this site was 90 percent beech, one aspect of the timber harvest included killing some of the beech by carefully applying a short-lived herbicide to their cut stumps. Said Fish, “We weren’t intending to completely remove beech from the stand, but we wanted to let other trees have a chance to grow as well.” One type of tree that should come back in greater numbers is red oak, whose acorns provide important food for wildlife including squirrels, birds, and bears. Black cherry should grow back as well – a valuable hardwood and a producer of fruit eaten by wildlife, including many migrating birds. Yellow birch, another high-value hardwood, should also return to the stand, as should species such as red maple, black birch, and paper birch. When a healthy variety of trees make up a woodland, they provide a greater variety of food and habitat for wildlife

“What this timber harvest has done is prepare this stand to become a big, healthy, mature forest in the future,” Fish said. And while it grows during its first 15 to 20 years, it will offer excellent young forest habitat to New England cottontails, snowshoe hares, moose, white-tailed deer, ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, and many other kinds of wildlife, including reptiles like black racers and amphibians such as salamanders. Songbirds including chestnut-sided warblers and eastern towhees will nest on the ground and in low trees in the dense young forest. Birds that breed in older-growth woodland, such as scarlet tanagers and wood thrushes, will bring their newly fledged young to the regenerating tract, where the inexperienced birds will find abundant insects and fruit to feed on while receiving some protection from avian predators among the closely spaced trunks of the young trees.

Brushpiles a Key Feature

To further benefit wildlife, the logging operation specified that brushpiles would be built, to give New England cottontails and other small mammals a better chance at evading predators and finding shelter during winter’s snow and cold. “The brushpiles are a primary feature of the cottontail habitat effort,” said Smith, who looks forward to the time when naturalists can train their spotting scopes or binoculars on New England cottontails living on the site.

New England cottontail in young forest habitat.

Naturalists may soon spot cottontails in rejuvenated young forest on Becket Land Trust property./T. Barnes/USFWS

MassWildlife habitat biologist Marianne Piché worked with conservation colleagues in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to help plan the habitat-creation effort on Becket Land Trust's Historic Forest and Quarry property. Through its Working Lands for Wildlife program (WLFW), the NRCS steered funding toward the project. WLFW provides financial assistance to private landowners to help them make or enhance habitat on their lands to benefit New England cottontails. The funding encourages landowners to make long-term investments in maintaining the natural resource base – in this case, improved wildlife habitat and a healthier and more-productive forest.

Said Fish: “A timber harvest like this provides a great way to mesh forestry and wildlife goals: Find a stand that has been degraded in the past and then do a heavy cut while leaving ample, good-quality seed trees to restock the new stand.” He added, “I’ve never done a heavy cut that I regretted. The diversity of the tree species that comes back makes your heart beat a little faster.”

When numbers of similar projects take place in an area, the local economy gets a boost, the forest grows healthier and more sustainable, and wildlife becomes more abundant. New England cottontails are only some of the big winners in such a case.

Funding and Partners

Becket Land Trust, MassWildlife, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Wildlife Management Institute.

How to Visit

To get to the Historic Quarry, take Route 20 to Becket. At the intersection of Route 20, Route 8 North, and Bonny Rigg Hill Road, turn onto Bonny Rig Hill Road. At a four-way intersection, turn left onto Quarry Road. Continue on Quarry Road to 456 Quarry Road to Land Trust signs and parking area on right. The Land Trust includes detailed directions on its website, as well as a trail map. The habitat area lies on both sides of the green-marked Vista Trail.