FALMOUTH, Maine — The air was so cold, the snow squeaked beneath Robert Shafto’s boots as he walked through the forest.
It was late afternoon and the low sun shone beneath the pine canopy, casting long shadows across the trail. When Shafto reached an open field, he paused at the treeline and looked back toward the woods he’d just walked through; woods that may soon be gone.
Under Shafto’s plan, 15 to 20 acres of the forest at Community Park North will be clear-cut — a scary term, conjuring images of bad forestry practices and destroyed wildlife habitats.
In this case, however, the proposed project is meant to create habitat for New England cottontail rabbits, an endangered species in Maine.
The plan has strong allies: the Falmouth Land Management and Acquisitions Committee developed it, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supports it. So does Maine Audubon.
The proposal is one of several forestry projects planned in town.
Throughout Falmouth, there are more than 2,000 acres of open-space properties in nearly 30 places. About 13 percent of the land is subject to forestry, under a new management plan.
The plan was spearheaded by Shafto, who is Falmouth’s open space ombudsman, and developed by the Land Management and Acquisitions Committee. Earlier this month, it was unanimously adopted by the Town Council.
Under the plan, most town-owned acres would be designated “forever wild.” Some will be cleared of invasive species. Others will be criss-crossed by new trails.
Elsewhere, trees will be harvested.
Those proposed projects include acreage at Blackstrap Hill Community Forest, Community Park, Hadlock Forest, North Falmouth Community Forest, Town Forest and Woods Road Community Forest.
Although the plan has been adopted by the Town Council, Chairwoman Teresa Pierce has said that many of the its individual items, including forestry projects, will still require the council’s approval before any action can be taken. Forestry, in particular, will be given careful consideration, she said.
Falmouth earns a relatively insignificant revenue from forestry projects. A recent project in Hadlock Forest earned the town about $26,000. The true purpose of the projects, however, is to improve the health of Falmouth’s forests, Shafto said.
The site of the proposed cottontail project is a representative example of town-owned forests.
Community Park North is a 30-acre section that was acquired in 2008 and adjoins Community Park. It is primarily pine forest.
“This area is entirely forested now, but it didn’t used to be. I know a guy who used to farm it,” Shafto said during a recent tour of the area. “It takes a very short time for land in Maine to go back to woods. Land wants to be woods in New England, if you give it half a chance.”
Most of southern Maine was deforested by the mid-to-late 1800s, including Falmouth, Shafto said. The only living trees in town were shade trees; the rest were cut for fuel, lumber or to make room for agriculture.
From 1880 to the 1930s, however, agriculture in Maine declined and fields were abandoned. Those fields sprouted forests and many of them are now in poor health, Shafto said.
In most of Falmouth’s forests, the trees are about the same age, roughly 80 years old. The stands are overcrowded and the trunks are thin for their age. Each forest is also largely homogeneous, dominated by a single tree species, which means they’re susceptible to disease. When the trees die, whether from old age or blight, entire systems collapse in a relatively short period of time, Shafto said.
In Hadlock Forest, about 80 percent of the trees are dying for lack of space, Shafto said. In Pine Grove Preserve, where forestry is prohibited, many of the similarly aged trees are dying or have been blown down.
“It ain’t going to be ‘Pine Grove’ for much longer,” he said.
The plan is to go into some of Falmouth’s worst forests, cut down the least healthy trees and promote new growth and bio-diversity.
“By thinning, you’re making the other trees stronger and healthier, because they’re getting more light, they’re getting more nutrients,” he said. “You’re also generating young growth, middle-age growth, old growth, all in the same area.”
Cutting trees to promote healthy forests seems counter-intuitive, Shafto acknowledged. It’s also contrary to the popular goal of stewarding old-growth forests.
“But you also want young forests, because there’s a whole set of wildlife species that require it,” he said.
New England cottontail rabbits are a prime example. The rabbits appear on Maine’s list of endangered species and are a candidate for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The rabbits prefer fields with low-lying shrubs and young trees nearby, and Shafto aims to provide it for them by clear-cutting a 300-foot-wide swath of pine trees alongside the “blue trail” from an existing field to the end of Paddock Way.
The project would leave nothing but tree stumps, except for a few existing apple trees scattered throughout the forest, and a buffer zone of trees between the clear-cut and nearby homes. The rest of the property, about 45 acres, will be designated forever wild.
Shafto acknowledges the initial results won’t be pretty.
“For the first year or so, you’re going to say, ‘Oh my God, they raped the land,’ but very quickly you’ll begin to see blackberries, viburnum, blueberries, all kinds of shrubs and herbaceous growth,” he said.
An early successional forest will soon follow, he said.
“In four or five years,” Shafto said, “it will look like a very green, very verdant piece of land.”
The proposed project might also bring in mice, which, in turn, will bring in owls, hawks, foxes, fishers, minks.
“That’s how you get diversity. That’s how you get healthy, robust ecosystems,” he said.
The site was identified by Kelly Boland, who is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist specializing in New England cottontails, and Rene Noel, a forester.
The trees are in poor health and don’t hold much value, Shafto said. He estimated the town might earn $5,000 for the poor-quality wood, which would be chipped. Also, the forest floor is teeming with invasive plants, such as buckthorn, bittersweet and honeysuckle. Those plants don’t support insect life, a major component of a thriving ecosystem.
The greatest resistance to the project could come from people who value nature most – hikers and mountain bikers, Shafto said.
“This will push a lot of buttons,” he said. “We live here now. We have a culture that doesn’t defer gratification well. When we walk in the woods, we want to see forests. It doesn’t matter that these trees aren’t healthy or they’re all the same age.
“We’re trying to get people to think longer-term than tomorrow and next year, and start thinking 15 years out, 25 years out 100 years out. Our whole open space plan is based on a 100-year vision for our community.”
Recreation is only part of that vision, Shafto said.
“These properties serve multiple purposes. Recreation is an important one, for sure — we built 45 miles of trails — but they’re also places for education, they protect us from floods, they recharge our groundwater, they sequester carbon and provide wildlife habitat,” he said. “That’s a big one. We have a responsibility to the animals. They also live in this town.”
Maine Audubon supports the project, as long as the town collaborates with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to “ensure that the best possible habitat is being made for the cottontails and that there is a source population to use the newly-created habitat,” said Michelle Smith, the group’s spokeswoman.
Shafto, who holds a degree in wildlife management from the University of Maine School of Forest Resources, said if the town builds the habitat, the rabbits will come. And, once established, their numbers will quickly grow.
“They’re rabbits,” he said. “It doesn’t take long to make more rabbits.”