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April 7, 2017

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Experts diagnoses what ails Hillside Woods

By Sondra Harris

Hillside Woods in Hastings


HASTINGS — The popular 49-acre forest known as Hillside Woods is sick, and a number of residents are intent on making it better.

About 100 people participated on Sunday, April 2, in part one of a two-part forum to consider the “State of the Woods: Our Local Ecology and What We Can Do to Restore It.”

Sponsored by several concerned organizations, the forum examined some of the factors undermining Hillside Woods’ ecology, causing erosion, deforestation, acidic soil, and species loss. The problems reflect issues affecting the local and regional ecology.

At noon last Sunday, interested residents gathered outside Hillside Elementary School to take a guided walk through the woods with four experts who, later in the day, participated in a panel discussion at the James Harmon Community Center.

Melissa Shandroff, chair of the Hastings High School science department, took one group to see two exclosures near Sugar Pond that were built by the Village and her AP Environmental Science students in June 2014. The exclosures are meant to foster regeneration of native plants by keeping deer out of the 10-by-10- meter fenced areas.

Healthy woods should contain a diversity of trees, shrubs, and herbs, with leaf litter on the floor to absorb water and protect seedlings. The woods should be dense with multiple layers of vegetation and an intact canopy to help maintain humidity and reduce high temperatures. There should be 5-, 10- and 15-year-old trees so that when more mature trees die, there are younger trees ready to replace them.

“A healthy forest has many seedlings, lots of saplings, and few adult trees,” explained longtime Hastings resident Wayt Thomas, curator of botany for the Institute of Systematic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden, who also served as a guide.

“When I moved here 24 years ago, we couldn’t see into the woods due to all the undergrowth,” said Natalie Barry, 58, president of the Hastings Historical Society. Now, the forest is empty of anything other than adult trees. There is no understory, which is a primary indicator that the woods are in trouble.

The historical society provided a display at the community center that outlined the background of the parcels that constitute the greenspace.

The main cause of the barren forest floor will not surprise local residents. Hillside Woods has been a dining room for a deer population that feasts on backyard gardens as well as on plants in natural environs like Hillside Woods.

Later on Sunday, the guides, walkers, and others met for an in-depth, two-hour discussion about what they had observed in the woods. The panel was moderated by Andrew Ratzkin, an attorney and member of the Hastings Conservation Commission, who is leading the effort to raise awareness about the state of Hillside Woods.

“Most in the village don’t know about the situation in Hillside Woods,” Ratzkin said. “I grew up in Hastings and was unaware until about a year ago of their condition. We hope to build a constituency that is committed to caring for and keeping attention on the woods, with the goal of generating a healthy woodland. It’s a multi-year, multi-decade effort. We need volunteers to take leadership roles and to help with field work.”

Ratzkin also made a point of welcoming Dobbs Ferry residents who attended the program, noting that the two villages share the Hillside Woods, a large swath of which originally belonged to The Children’s Village. It was a clear invitation to make this a collaborative effort on the part of both villages.

In addition to Shandroff and Thomas, the panel included entomologist Lawrence Forcella of Hastings and Hillary Seiner, manager of science and stewardships programs at Teatown Lake Reservation, a 1,000-acre preserve in Ossining.

Forcella explained that deer used to be rare in this area. There are two to three times as many here now as there were in the 1600s, when this was a primeval oak forest. “They are here en force now, drawn by the vegetation of backyard gardens,” Forcella said. “Suburbia is like a deer smorgasbord. This is their perfect habitat.”

Deer are one of four primary stressors responsible for the ecological problems in Hillside Woods. Invasive plants, fragmentation, and climate change are also major contributors, and not all can be dealt with at a local level.

The pale-brown reeds growing along Sugar Pond may look pretty, but they are invaside Phragmites, a common and aggressive wetland grass that displaces native plants. Deer prefer wildflowers and other native vegetation to invasives.

In addition to Phragmites, the entire area is plagued by invasive vines that can grow so thick and heavy that they can topple the trees they encircle.

Fragmentation refers to the lack of uninterrupted woods and open space, due to intermittent development, that serve as natural habitats for plants and animals. Suburbia exemplifies this problem, one that must be worked around, rather than solved.

The fourth major factor impacting the local ecology is climate change, another issue that can’t be fixed at the local level. However, persistent attention to local ecological issues like the ailing Hillside Woods can positively impact the global problem of climate change.

One request from the panel regards soil acidity. “Pick up your dog poop,” Forcella pleaded. “Dog poop adds acidity to the soil and can prevent native plants from growing back. It’s everywhere. Kids in school groups I lead are always stepping in it. The acidity also affects the pond water, which it enters via runoff.”

Last Sunday’s "State of the Woods" program was meant to alert the community to local ecological pressures affecting Hillside Woods and the surrounding area. It was sponsored by the Hastings Conservation Commission as well as the village’s Parks and Recreation Department, Hastings Vine Squad, historical society, the high school Environmental Club, and the Hillside Nature Guides Program, which introduces elementary school students to the natural environment in their backyard. Other sponsors included the Hudson River Audubon Society and the Dobbs Ferry Conservation Advisory Board, reflecting the fact that the state of the woods concerns neighboring communities that coexist in the same ecological network.

Part two of the forum will take place on Wednesday, May 3. After a woods walk from 4 to 5 p.m., there will be a panel at 7 p.m. to discuss strategies that Hastings and neighboring communities can use to repair and maintain a healthy regional ecosystem.

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.