Sunday, March 20, 2016
The piles of brush lined a section of Connetquot State Park Sunday as young men and women took chain saws to the trees infested by the southern pine beetle.
But the inaugural class of the Excelsior Conservation Corps, a group tackling conservation projects across the state, had created just a “tiny dent” in the effort to vanquish the beetle — first detected on Long Island in 2014.
“They’re big, they’re dead, and they’re dangerous, and we’re here to make them not dangerous anymore,” said Donnie Faughnan, 25, a fellow corps member from upstate Endicott.
Faughnan is among 50 in the program, formed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last year as a modern-day take on the “Civilian Conservation Corps” that rebuilt public parks and infrastructure during the New Deal in the 1930s and ’40s. The group’s mission is to revitalize state parks, promote community service, and guide participants to scholarships and jobs in the field of environmental conservation.
Cuomo’s program is a partnership with AmeriCorps and the Student Conservation Association, a national nonprofit, and participants between the ages of 18 and 25, including veterans, are eligible. The program, which has $1.9 million in federal and state funding, lasts 10 months and consists of 18 service missions, called “hitches,” occurring throughout the state. Corps members live at the dorms at Morrisville State College, but camp out in tents during the service weeks.
Since the program began Jan. 18, the young crew members have trained in the “game of logging,” a chain-saw safety program.
Emily Bowles, 24, supervisor for the group currently at Connetquot, said at first her crew members were “terrified” of operating the chain saws. “Now they’re ripping trees up.”
Bowles estimates that corps members will have taken down nearly 500 trees after spending 20 days at Connetquot. They are not responsible for removing the debris from the parks, only felling the wobbly or angled trees that could topple on trails where thousands of visitors walk each day.
The pine beetle has infected federal, state and county parks in Suffolk County, reaching the level of a “full-blown” infestation in 2015, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Bowles said she hopes other groups are motivated to remove the infested trees as her students move on to other tasks, such as clearing brush at Bear Mountain and removing other invasive species — honeysuckle and multiﬂora Rosa.
Many in the program have just finished college and wanted outdoor fieldwork experience before signing up for graduate school or research careers in the laboratory.
“After school, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do,” said Alyssa Stevens, 24, who graduated from Stony Brook University in 2014 and studied marine science. Handling a chain saw “is pretty exhilarating,” she said.
Erica DePalma, a 22-year-old recent graduate from Fordham University, said the program has linked her with “like-minded” peers of her generation. She said she wants to work in the field of water quality.
“Doing conservation work while we’re young is pretty important to us,” DePalma said.
Story by Scott Eidler, photo by Ed Betz. See the original Newsday coverage here.