To dogwalkers used to morning strolls across the broad lawns of Housatonic Meadow State Park in Cornwall Bridge it looked as if the tree crews from Sharon had gone wild. The magnificent collection of ancient oaks along the riverbank had been amputated, cut down in an operation apparently authorized by the State DEEP.

“I almost vomited when I drove by,” Joanne Wojtusiak told her friend and sometime fellow community critic Jaime Longhi on the phone, “the destruction … is something you can’t believe.” Outrage was widespread, and complaints were made to local selectmen and legislators, whose inquiries led to a pause in the projected cutting of scores of white pines also slated for destruction.

In a November 22 response to a protest from Sharon Audubon Director Ellen Fielding, DEEP Deputy Commissioner Mason Trumble defended the cutting as necessary to prevent those trees that “may pose a hazard to the public from causing damage,” explaining that “earlier this summer, one of the larger, mature oaks … fell into the parking lot and picnic area,” although “no one was injured.” Trumble said that during the pause DEEP staff had “evaluated” the white pines still slated for destruction whose “roots are breaking up the asphalt of the road” and determined that removal of “the vast majority” was “necessary” and “will resume within the next two weeks.”

Trumble’s failure to address DEEP’s apparent overkill and declaration of intent to proceed inflamed the situation. The independent Sharon arborist Michael Nadeau, after conducting an examination of the site, found “very few defects that might indicate a hazard” among the boles and stumps of the oaks cut down. He questioned “the decision-making process” involved and suggested that most of the white pines slated for removal appeared to be “of normal health and vigor.”

The protest grew rapidly. An online petition garnered hundreds of signatures, and Cornwall residents who until a few weeks before had been bitterly divided over a contested local election came together to send emails and make phone calls to DEEP Commissioner Katie Sykes.

DEEP seemed unmoved. Convinced that the legal process of filing an injunction would be drawn out and the tree choppers were on the verge of returning, a group of Cornwall and Sharon residents, who by then had taken on the name of Housatonic Meadows Preservation Action (HMPA), decided to physically prevent the wholesale cutting. At 7 A.M. on the morning of December 6 more than a dozen citizens parked their vehicles to form a barricade protecting the pines.

After an interval, a polite young park official arrived and informed the group that they must move their cars to the parking lot. The crowd complied, but remained ready to re-form the vehicular barricade. But no tree crew arrived. When the park officer observed the orange graffiti spray-painted on the roadway to the boat launch he warned the group against defacing public property. Joanne promptly spoke up: “If you want to know who did it, just look at my shoes.”

The standoff appeared to continue until December 15, when the Council on Environmental Quality, the independent state board whose duty it is to investigate citizens’ complaints, took up HMPA’s remonstrance and decided to send an advisory to DEEP not to take any further steps pending a public hearing that has yet to be scheduled.

Meanwhile in an unfortunate twist of fate one of the primary instigators of the protest, Joanne Wojtusiak, died suddenly in her sleep less than a week after the Housy Meadows blockade.

Paul De Angelis

📷: Robert Adzema & Lazlo Gyorsok