It’s a lovely brook. The current is strong and the water gurgles as it rushes under a footbridge. Canada geese honk in the distance. A hiking trail parallels the brook, lined with trees on both banks.
They’re pitch pines and they stand tall. But they are shorn of needles. They’re dead, all of them.
Three people in overalls, goggles and safety hats gather around one of the trees, and a chain saw shatters the sounds of nature. Another pine is coming down.
Connetquot River State Park is one of the many places on Long Island where the southern pine beetle has been wreaking havoc. Thousands of trees have been lost — at least 80 percent of the park’s pines, says state Department of Environmental Conservation regional forester John Wernet.
Thinning healthy stands of pines is the best way to stop the spread of the beetles. It’s worked elsewhere, but wasn’t tried here. Now, reality is painful: Armies of dead trees must come down because they pose threats to runners, walkers, hikers, birders and fishers in the sprawling park.
“We leave some, we take down the most dangerous,” says Emily Bowles, a 23-year-old SUNY New Paltz grad with a biology degree.
Bowles, part of the Student Conservation Association, supervises a 10-person crew of mostly 20-somethings who are part of a new AmeriCorps program started this year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Modeled on the fabled Civilian Conservation Corps from FDR’s New Deal, it trains about 50 young adults in conservation and then sends them all over the state wherever they’re needed.
Connetquot needs them to take down the dead pines, which state parks staff will chip and use for trail cover. Bowles’ crew had been prepped for what awaited them with slides and aerial photos.
“But seeing the devastation takes a toll on you,” says Donnie Faughnan, 25, of upstate Endicott, who just finished a biology degree from Broome Community College.
“All the trees that are supposed to have needles that don’t,” Hannah Doherty says, her voice sadly trailing off. Doherty, 22, studied biology at SUNY Geneseo.
She and Faughnan are working on Fisherman’s Trail with Steven DiMeglio, 24, a Fishkill resident with a degree in environmental geochemical science from SUNY New Paltz. They understand the duality of what they’re doing. It’s mournful work, like a requiem, but they’re proud to do it. And for them, one day outdoors beats a hundred cooped up inside.
“I’ve always loved to work outdoors,” DiMeglio says. The program, he adds, “seemed like a place where you can have an adventure while making a difference.”
They started in Connetquot on March 3, and will finish their second hitch on Tuesday. They took down 310 pines on their first go-round and want to have 800 or more done when they leave. Then it’s off for more training and deployment around the state. They get room, board, a small stipend, lots of experience and a ton of satisfaction. And the state gets a whole lot of work for the $1.9 million cost of the 10-month program. “It’s a fantastic idea, I hope we can use them on our land in the future,” Wernet says. Employing them to thin trees in at-risk areas would be helpful.
Another group works deeper in the park, along a horse trail where towering dead pines are foreboding in their bleakness. Trevor Cooley, 19, from Malone, near the Canadian border, sits on a felled log sharpening the chain on his saw. He’s an outdoors guy to his core, but the destruction wrought by the beetles stunned him.
“It’s hard to wrap my head around it,” he says quietly.
Up the trail, another chain saw roars to life.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.