Outrage over T's trolley tree cuts

The remains of two mature trees and a stand of bushes along the Neponset Greenway. Photo by Pete Stidman.

Many users and neighbors of the Mattapan High Speed Line were horrified last week at what they called a total clear-cutting of all vegetation anywhere near the line's tracks.

Flying in the face of Mayor Thomas Menino's Grow Boston Greener program that promises to plant 100,000 trees by 2020, an MBTA-hired contractor mowed to the ground giant thickets and hundreds of trees along the entire right of way for the historic rail line, extending at times into Cedar Grove Cemetery, jumping over to the opposite side of the Neponset Greenway path and even reaching down to the banks of the Neponset River in violation of the Wetlands Protection Act.

Valerie Burns, executive director of the Boston Natural Areas Network, estimated that hundreds of trees up to 12 and 24 inches in trunk diameter were lost.

"This is simply clear cutting, which I have never seen before in all the years I have been working on the Neponset," said Burns. "Because so many of the trees were so mature it's going to take a significant number of trees to mitigate this."

The city put the unofficial total in the hundreds as well, but only a fraction of those were in violation of the law, said Energy and Environmental Services chief Jim Hunt III.

"We are concerned for a host of reasons but first and foremost from a regulatory standpoint, it appears that there's been a violation of the Wetlands Protection Act," said Hunt. "The Conservation Commission is looking at its options and working with the T to remedy that but also looking at process moving forward because there's additional work they would like to do. It is my understanding that the T is willing to engage the community more directly going forward."

Hunt said the T failed to file with the Conservation Commission to get approval for the work, which at least where it approached the Neponset River, was in a buffer zone for the Wetlands. The city's "Con Com," as it is known for short, administers the Wetlands Protection Act in Boston for the state's Department of Environmental Protection.

The MBTA defended the clear cut as an effort to prevent tree limbs from falling on the tracks in the winter months and clearing the brush as a way to improve safety as part of the "Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design" program. But when asked where the safety concerns were coming from, MBTA spokesperson Lydia Rivera had difficulty coming up with a solid answer.

"It was probably the T security," she said. "Our observations tell us 'Oh we should trim back on the trees.'"

In Boston and other cities, residents are increasingly aware of the benefits trees and other vegetation provide. In addition to their aesthetic value, trees and bushes filter the air, capture storm water runoff, and provide a habitat for wildlife. These and other reasons are cited for the city's own Grow Boston Greener tree-planting effort. But it is still a relative few that see the effects on wildlife firsthand.

Anne Schmalz, a Lower Mills resident who knows the greenway like the back of her hand, creates the bird paintings that appear on informational posters in kiosks all along the Neponset Greenway trail.

On Tuesday she pled with DCR staffer Rob McArthur to tell the MBTA's cutting crew to spare a particular section of bushes that provide a haven for small birds at a spot between the Cedar Grove and Butler trolley stops. From the trolley on her way to work Wednesday, she said she spotted McArthur talking to the crew and felt assured he was passing along her message. But later that week she noticed the bushes were mowed to the ground and the birds were gone.

"It was a real treasure trove of birds," Schmalz said. "Even if it wasn't near the tracks they just clear-cut it all."

At Cedar Grove Cemetery the picture was much the same, angering its caretakers.

"They really butchered it," said cemetery trustee John O'Toole. "We lost some really mature trees that provided a buffer between the cemetery on Madden Street and the trolley itself… It looks like they did it so they never had to go back in there again."

Cedar Grove superintendent Jim Feeney said the T did warn him about the work, but when he saw the results he knew he'd never seen anything like it in all the 28 years he's worked there.

"I assumed they were going to trim lightly down the tracks, they didn't go into details about it," Feeney said. "They redid all these rails and stuff earlier this year. I'm sure that was part of it too. I don't like it as much as anybody else but I don't know what you can do about it now."

The complaints follow on the heels of those of Dot resident Doreen Miller who noted the same clear cutting technique was used along the Red Line near Savin Hill Station. "I don't buy that argument," she wrote to the MBTA's public affairs officer Ross Rodino when he cited falling limbs delay-causing as the reason.

Going forward, the city, the DCR, the Milton Department of Conservation and the MBTA are meeting to discuss possible mitigation to replace trees, bushes and habitat, but the T has made no commitments on just how extensive that mitigation would be, and the city only has leverage in the areas where the Wetlands Protection Act was violated. The DCR's spokesperson Wendy Fox said the department is beginning to plan mitigations but also wasn't clear on the scale.

"As confused as the DCR's role in this has been, DCR does have ecologists on staff," said Burns. "DCR should be able to develop a plan… It's hard for me to estimate how many were cut down. I do think there needs to be a replacement program, in particular for some of the habitat that was lost."

Additionally, the T still has more tree- and bush-clearing work to do on the line in several locations. Rivera said the work would not continue this weekend and there are plans to meet with the city, DCR, the Milton Department of Conservation and possibly the neighborhood.

"We can set up a meeting to discuss what is going to be done, we'd be happy to do that. Whether it's a flyer to hand out along the way or a Q and A session," said Rivera. "We are committed to working very closely with the neighborhood, City of Boston's Environmental Department as well as DCR to ensure that as we move forward with this very important project information on its progress is shared."

"I do think they need to look at the process and make sure this doesn't happen again," said state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry, who received several calls at her office. "Everything should be halted until a full explanation is made."