A pair of red-tailed hawks soared over acres of broken forest on the flanks of Sleeping Giant State Park Tuesday as heavy machinery roared, continuing the monthslong effort to clean up hundreds of trees smashed by the May 15 storm.
Massive piles of timber were stacked near the still-closed park’s entrance, awaiting transport to lumber mills in Canada and the U.S. as more and more shattered trees are brought down from the heights. Sale of the trees will help cover mounting cleanup costs, officials said.
Hamden’s Sleeping Giant, one of the state’s most popular inland parks, is now expected to remain closed throughout the summer. Cleanup costs could top $1 million, state officials said. No one knows what the final tab will be, and Connecticut officials are hoping federal emergency storm aid will cover the cost.
Nearby Wharton Brook State Park in Wallingford suffered less damage, parks officials said, but it also remains closed. Piles of collected branches and broken wood 200 feet long and 20 feet high are awaiting disposal.
But DEEP officials are hoping that 96-acre Wharton Brook can be reopened before summer is over.
The tougher job is at the far larger Sleeping Giant Park, which covers 1,465 acres with 32 miles of woodland trails. Officials estimate that 10-12 acres of trees were lost.
“As we get deeper into the park we’re discovering more trees down,” said Chris Collibee, spokesman for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
The damage is likely to make some areas of Sleeping Giant unrecognizable for longtime visitors. The Pine Grove picnic area, once a favorite shady retreat for families, is now no more than bare earth baking under the summer sun. “Unfortunately, Mother Nature took it away,” Collibee said of the grove.
Toilet buildings and equipment sheds need to be replaced. The main trail to the summit is choked with debris. On a nearby rise, a pavilion built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps has gaping holes in its roof.
“It’s going to take some time,” Collibee said of the repair efforts. “In the future, it may be very different.” He said that, if DEEP were to replant trees to replace all that have been lost, it could “take a couple of decades to return” to even close to what Sleeping Giant once was.
But parks officials aren’t sure exactly how they want to proceed with the park. Collibee said DEEP plans to consult with local officials, the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, and local park volunteers before making any long-term plans for Sleeping Giant.
“The storm had a different impact here,” said Tammy Talbot, a 28-year-veteran with the agency who is now the district operations supervisor for state parks in the western part of Connecticut. She said the damage “was mostly spotty,” but one large pine grove “was just wiped out” by the force of the storm winds. About 800 trees were taken down at Wharton Brook, according to Collibee.
Parks officials continue to urge people to stay away from both parks while the cleanup is in progress.
Most of Sleeping Giant’s trails still haven’t been cleared of fallen trees and half-broken trunks and branches that could come down at any time. The main trail to the summit hasn’t yet been completely cleared of downed trees and the park’s most popular path has become a rutted, uneven roadway as a result of the passage of heavy equipment.
Collibee said the main trail to the summit will need work to be stabilized and smoothed out once the trucks and tractors have finished their work.
Volunteers are working weekends to help clear some smaller trails. Jill Scheibenpflug, Sleeping Giant’s park supervisor, said workers from the local branch of the Friends of Connecticut State Parks have cleared away more than 115 trees from side trails.
There is some good news for fans of Sleeping Giant.
The tower at the summit wasn’t damaged by the storm, officials said. Fallen trees that are off the park’s trails will be left as they are and will provide new habitat for different types of animals, including great winter denning spots for black bears.
Along the Mill River, which runs through a portion of the park, DEEP parks officials are working with state fisheries experts to improve conditions for fish in the stream.
While some fallen trees along the river have been cleared away, Collibee said a few of the damaged trees’ “root balls” have been placed on the riverbank and partially in the water to “create new fish habitat.”
Areas that are now bare earth will first be planted with grass to prevent erosion, Collibee said, but are eventually to be turned into wildflower meadows to provide nutrients for key pollinators like butterflies and wild bees.
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