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Regenerating Connecticut’s Rampant Highway Deforestation: The Crucial Role of Native Plants in State Projects

Nannette Trinkaus

May 2024

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In recent months, travelers along I-84 West near Southbury, particularly around exit 14, have witnessed a distressing transformation. Large sections of mature forests that once framed the highway, celebrated for their spectacular fall foliage, have been clear cut to accommodate roadway construction. This significant loss of mature trees is more than an aesthetic deprivation—it poses a serious threat to our local ecosystems by displacing native wildlife habitats. Mature trees also play a crucial role in carbon sequestration, far surpassing the capabilities of young saplings.

 

As Connecticut pushes forward with infrastructure development, it's imperative that we reassess our environmental strategies, particularly the types of plants we reintroduce post-construction. The Department of Transportation’s (DOT) current plan involves replanting non-native plants and potentially invasive species — a decision that undermines the ecological integrity and resilience of our natural landscapes.

 

The importance of native plants cannot be overstated. One native species which also happens to be Connecticut's state tree – the oak – is a keystone plant in our ecosystem. Oak trees support an incredible diversity of life, including over 500 species of caterpillars, which are vital food sources for birds and other wildlife. Native trees, woody shrubs, and perennials foster a more resilient and biodiverse environment. In addition to their ecosystem functions, native species are adapted for our area and require less maintenance which would save the state money on upkeep. Native flowers provide food and habitat for pollinators and other wildlife, and are aesthetically beautiful too! They also have deep root systems which sequester carbon deep in the soil, improve groundwater infiltration, and reduce erosion – all of which will improve the state's resilience to climate disasters.

 

Sierra Club Connecticut strongly supports legislative measures such as HB 5225 which passed both the House and Senate and will ban the sale and cultivation of invasive plants. These plants displace our native flora, compounding the challenges our ecosystems face. In line with this legislative effort, it is crucial that our state agencies commit to planting native species in all public projects. This practice would not only align with HB 5225’s objectives but would also ensure that our ecosystems are restored and enhanced, rather than merely maintained.

 

The approach to planting should also mimic natural ecosystems – where trees, shrubs, and perennials interact in layers, supporting each other and creating a robust community. Notably, the existing DOT plan for the Exit 14 project does not include any replanting by the new exit ramp. This area could be converted to a native pollinator meadow, creating additional habitat and biodiversity with the bonus of less maintenance than would be required for a grass lawn replacement. This methodology – creating multi-storied ecosystems of plants where possible, and cultivating meadows in medians and by exit ramps – not only enhances aesthetic value and protects against erosion and flooding, but also improves the ecological function of the plantings by providing habitats, food sources, and protective structures for local wildlife.

 

Several local environmental groups including Bent of the River, Audubon Society, Southbury Land Trust, Southbury Garden Club and Sustainable Southbury have also stepped up to support alternative native planting recommendations for the DOT to consider for the Exit 14 intersection. The situation on I-84 in Southbury, however, is not unique, as many regions of Connecticut have seen similar levels of deforestation in the name of highway repairs and expansions.

 

As members of the Sierra Club and stewards of Connecticut’s natural heritage, we must advocate for change across our state. We encourage all members to engage with state and local officials, pushing for a commitment to native plantings in our state’s projects. It’s not only about preserving the beauty of our landscapes – it’s about ensuring their ability to thrive for generations to come.

Nannette Trinkaus is a Sierra Club member and volunteer and former Sierra Club Connecticut Executive Committee member.

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