Massachusetts Port Authority officials accepted a recommendation from the Conservation Commission last week to replenish part of the Jordan Conservation Area with trees and shrubs.
The remaining question is timing – either early spring or late fall. Massport and the commission agreed to resume the discussion at the panel’s March meeting.
The problem stems from Massport’s most recent maintenance of trees in the conservation area, which is along the approach to one of the runways at Hanscom Field. Several years ago, Massport reached an agreement with the Conservation Commission to periodically trim or remove the tallest trees, to comply with Federal Aviation Administration rules.
“The trees keep growing,” commission Chair Steven Hagan explained to the meeting in his summary of the issue. “At least every five years, we go through the process of either cutting trees or trimming trees.” He noted that trimming can be fatal for pine and softwood trees, while “you can carefully prune a hardwood.”
Last summer, crews from Stantec, the port authority’s environmental contractor, entered the conservation area and “opened up a lot of the wetlands in Jordan. Now the residents on Hartwell Road can see runway lights and hear the noise,” said Dan Cathcart, the commission’s consulting arborist.
Cathcart offered a replanting plan, featuring eight species of deciduous and evergreen trees, as well as nine shrubs and pollinators. He said he is recommending plants that are deer-resistant, and trees whose maximum height won’t exceed the FAA limits.
He said his plan is intended “to provide the screening that has been lost as well as reforesting the area most impacted by the removal and pruning project of last summer and fall.”
“Larger mature trees are suggested for farther back so we don’t have to deal with this any time soon,” Cathcart said. He presented a diagram, noting that some of the actual placement “has to be field determined. The idea is for the contractor to walk the site and pick the exact location so they all make sense.”
“We’re looking to develop for the long term,” he said, so he won’t risk overcrowding. “It is a wooded area, not a finely manicured landscaped property, so things like mulching are not going to be necessary. Due to the high water table and level of water, I don’t think it will require supplemental irrigation.”
He added, “The plantings will need to be monitored over the next four years for pests and diseases.”
The trees he recommended include Atlantic white cedar, balsam fir, white fir, Eastern red cedar, swamp white oak, and American basswood. Among the other plantings are witch hazel, winterberry, highbush blueberry, mountain laurel, red osier dogwood, and pussy willow.
Gregg Cohen, an environmental project manager with Stantec, applauded Cathcart’s recommendations. “I think he did a great job. I think a lot of the species he has recommended we have also proposed in past replanting initiatives at Hanscom.”
When Cathcart called for replanting either in late fall or nearly spring, commission member Deb Edinger said the latter is “much better for survival,” and the supply of many species may be depleted by fall.
But Brad Washburn, Massport’s deputy director for environmental planning, said, “We want to review the plantings and make sure there are no species of concern.” Cohen said regarding 2023, “I think spring planting is a very aggressive schedule. It’s a little different than a private sector undertaking.”
Thomas Kenny of 98 Hartwell Rd. addressed the Massport delegation, “You know what these issues are already; you’ve done this before. It seems like Massport would like to just keep pushing this down the road.” He added that if neighbors hadn’t written a letter pointing out the problem, “they would have let it fill in naturally.”
Washburn noted that the port authority has to execute performance bonds, maintenance agreements, and warranties, and “Massport is not trying to kick the can.” He noted that Massport vegetation management initiatives at Hanscom began in 1995, and over the years “a lot of replantings have resulted in dramatic failure” because of the size of the stock and “deer browsing.”
“We have a few concerns with some of the species, particularly berry-producing plants,” Washburn said.
Massport works closely with the federal Department of Agriculture and with wildlife control agencies, hoping to minimize wildlife and ensure flight safety. Even though some species that draw wildlife are already growing in the Jordan land, “our goal is not to increase their number. Increasing wildlife habitat is not necessarily compatible with the airport’s goals.”
Kenny alleged that during the most recent cycle of Jordan trimming, Massport used larger equipment than before “and required a much wider path be cut through the woods.” Washburn maintained, “We did use the road we have been using for the last three events there. We did have to remove a few trees. The matting thwarted some of the herbaceous growth and we expect it will reappear, especially with the light getting in now.”
“Typically, we like to do this when the ground is frozen,” he added, but “Covid came in right when we were trying to get this going.”
The actual planting should take less than a week, Cathcart said in answer to a question from commission member Lori Eggert. “That’s the quickest part of the project,” Cohen agreed. Eggert stressed that the neighbors are looking for relief, but Cohen replied, “I would like to not rush into it and come up short.”
Member Stacey Katz asked about a standard procedure for planting, but Cohen pointed out that the Jordan area is “a unique environment. What has been done in the past are plantings we thought had the best opportunity to thrive and succeed specific to their micro-environment.”
He added that “browsing by deer has been a huge problem with every replanting effort we initiated at the airport.”
Edinger agreed that “you have to protect the new plantings from deer.”
The vulnerability is exacerbated as native plants are superseded by invasives that deer won’t eat.
She cited the young plants protected by fencing at the recently refurbished Middlesex Community College parking lot on Springs Road. Protecting the young trees this way may be cheaper than replanting, she said. Kenny added that he has had success using a deer repellent