The Barbara Hale nature preserve along Accabonac Harbor in Springs has long been slated to be restored to its traditional state as an open meadow, but questions arose this week after a landscape designer, at the invitation of the town’s natural resources director, removed dozens of trees there using machinery.
The State Department of Environmental Conservation issued a permit months ago for clearing some of the locusts, black cherries, and invasive species that have filled in the expanse stretching to the wetlands. It prohibited the use of mechanized equipment, requiring everything slated for removal to be cut using hand tools. Suffolk County, a co-owner of the land with East Hampton Town, also specified that the clearing be done only by hand.
After a visit to the site early last week, Scott Wilson, the town’s director of land acquisition and management, issued a memo to the town board, along with photographs, noting that a “tracked excavator had significantly disturbed a portion of the property.”
Such disturbance of the ground, Mr. Wilson wrote, allows invasive species to seed and take root, and is “what the D.E.C. permit was specifically trying to prevent.”
Larry Penny, the town’s natural resources director, said on Tuesday that as of the end of last week, 430 black locust trees and 600 cherries had been removed from the preserve.
Last fall, he said, Edwina von Gal, a landscape designer who lives in the vicinity, had called to see if she could dig out some of the black cherry trees that were to be cut, in order to replant them elsewhere. “Rather than kill them, I said okay,” Mr. Penny said Tuesday. As the trees are a native species, he said he had no objection to their being replanted.
The natural resources director said that 40 trees were dug out and removed by Ms. Von Gal, and that he had “no idea” how it was done.
In his memo to the board, Mr. Wilson said that a neighbor reported seeing 130 trees dug up, wrapped in burlap, and removed, and that trucks and heavy equipment were brought onto the site to do the work.
Mr. Penny said that he had okayed allowing machines into the preserve to remove the tree stumps in order to avoid problems in the future, when the restored meadow would be regularly mowed.
Though the original clearing permit prohibited this, he said, “I got the okay from the lady who gave me the D.E.C. permit.” He refused to name the D.E.C. official, but said he had spoken to her by phone.
Ms. von Gal said in an e-mail on Tuesday that the trees were dug out by hand and taken away using “rubber tire small equipment.” Plywood was laid down, she said, to minimize soil compaction and the area was raked and seeded with native grasses. The Accabonac Protection Committee, she noted, “have worked so long to get this field cleared, [we] hoped we could jump-start the effort and save the town some money for removals. And the trees will live on in the ‘reveg’ area,” she said.
Mr. Wilson said in his memo that he brought the matter to the town board’s attention because both the conditions of the D.E.C. permit and the wishes of the county had been violated. The town’s management of properties co-owned with the county has been a source of contention between the two entities in the past.
Mr. Wilson also questioned how the town would be compensated for trees that, if taken by a landscape company, could be sold.
The situation points out a discrepancy between the responsibilities of the town’s Natural Resources Department, where Mr. Penny has been charged with obtaining various permits from the D.E.C. and carrying out projects, and the Land Acquisition and Management Department, which has been overseeing management of nature preserves for several years.
“I think there was a lot of pressure to get things done, and this is how he approached it,” Councilman Pete Hammerle said yesterday of Mr. Penny. “I just hope there is no problem with the D.E.C., and the property is not disturbed.”
The status of the meadow restoration project has been raised at numerous town board meetings over the last year, with board members questioning when the work would get under way. Neither Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson nor other members of the board responded to an e-mail seeking comment on the matter.
The preserve is named for the late Barbara Hale, a longtime Accabonac resident and naturalist. Unlike a number of the town’s nature preserves, a specific management plan for the site has not been adopted, but the town nature preserve committee has long endorsed the meadow restoration plan.
Although there are numerous cherry saplings in the preserve that are tagged for removal, work there is on hold until after Aug. 15, the end of the period when work could disturb breeding or nesting grassland birds.