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Sharon Friends of Conservation

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Letters to the Editor: Swamp Story

These letters refer to a story about Sharon's Atlantic White Cedar Swamp which ran in SFOC's Spring 2006 newsletter. An Editor's Note responding to these letters has since been published.

May 9, 2006

To the Editor:

I was certainly shocked to open up the Spring 2006 Newsletter and see the photo of standing dead cedar trees in an area of the cedar swamp across from my home on East Foxboro Street along with an article written by Kurt Buermann and Clifford Towner. This photo was captioned, “Dead cedar trees are just one sign of the critical condition of Sharon’s Atlantic White Cedar Swamp” and illustrated a story that says, “These cedars are dead and dying because the water table has been lowered by human activities such as ditching and pumping of municipal wells.” This gives the impression that the trees shown in the photo died because of the swamp’s drying out. This is not so.

I moved into my home in 1979, and every year I witnessed the water level grow higher and higher at this site. The trees slowly began to die. During the 1980s I would sit on my porch and watch the trees fall down and the ever-higher levels of standing water become putrid.

I began an effort to try to get the Town to do something to restore this area. I did not get much support and was put off by people’s telling me that dead cedars were good for nesting birds. It was not until 1993 that I organized the neighbors in this area to get a hearing before Conservation Commission to restore the swamp by lowering the water level. The older neighbors said that changes on this site began when two houses were constructed that blocked the drain from the swamp to the lake, with the water trapped within the swamp, and the wetlands across the street and nearest the lake drying up.

There was vocal opposition to this requested restoration even though more and more trees were dying in the high water. No one spoke up at that time about the importance of the cedar swamp or the living cedar trees. I was told that since the trees were almost all dead, there was no point in restoring this site. A wildlife habitat assessment by Fugro-McClelland (East) Inc., commissioned in 1993 by the Conservation Office, states, “FM-East agrees with the opinions expressed by Bruce Sorrie relative to the proposal to restore the red maple–Atlantic white cedar swamp” and cites Motzkin (1991): “Increased water levels caused by human interference with normal drainage patterns appears to be the single factor most frequently responsible for recent site degradation.”

The Town proceeded with an engineering project in 1993 or 1994 that allowed the water to return to its natural flow pattern. The printed photo shows this area with the new growth that, according to Greg Meister, Conservation Agent, includes young cedars mixed with red maple trees. In the background you can still see standing the trees that began to die during the period of increased water. It causes me much dismay to see this photo of the cedar swamp off East Foxboro Street printed and used as an example of damage due to decreased water.

Katherine Byrne

May 15, 2006

To the Editor:

I have read the e-mails from Alice Cheyer and Kathy Byrne with regard to my article on the Cedar Swamp. … I am responding only because you and the board of SFOC trusted me to write an article about the White Cedar Swamp for your publication.

First, let’s look at the photograph with the [printed newsletter] article, which I had nothing to do with. That photo is not of the Cedar Swamp nor has that area been part of the Cedar Swamp for generations. All of the dead trees in the photo are white pine, not cedar. Anyone with any knowledge of trees knows that pines do not grow in flooded wet swamps, and anyone who looks at the photo can tell those pines were growing for many years. Those pines were killed by high water along with all the hardwood trees that were harvested in the mid-nineties. Hardwood trees twelve to fifteen inches in diameter also do not grow in flooded cedar swamps.

That area along East Foxboro Street flooded in the mid-eighties because of plugged drainage pipes and a lake level that was raised a foot higher than it is carried today. The area in the photograph was isolated from the main cedar swamp by the railroad tracks in the 1800s, and the area along East Foxboro Street was further isolated by a railroad spur to haul ice out of the lake.

I wrote about Sharon’s White Cedar Swamp, not [the area along East Foxboro Street]. …
Sharon has a serious groundwater problem; the cedar swamp is the linchpin supporting our drinking water; pull that pin and we are on MWRA. [The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority brings water from Quabbin and Wachusett reservoirs, west of Boston, to local water departments in 48 communities—Editor’s note].

I congratulate the Sharon Friends of Conservation for addressing this very important environmental issue. The article in your newsletter about the cedar swamp is absolutely correct in every respect.

Cliff Towner

June 4, 2006

To the Editor:

As an SFOC board member who takes part in publishing the newsletter, I was upset when Ms. Byrne wrote that the photo illustrating the White Cedar Swamp story printed in the spring newsletter did not in fact show what the caption and article implied: that cedars had died as a result of the drying out of the cedar swamp. It turns out she is correct: (1) both the autumn photo in the newsletter and the summer photo posted on the Web site [shown at left] for a month (until replaced) were judged by the ecologists Glenn Motzkin at Harvard Forest and Tim Simmons of NHESP to show white pines, not cedars; the newsletter accepts responsibility for erroneously captioning and implying that these were cedars, and inadvertently misleading its readers. (2) The 1993 wildlife habitat assessment mentioned in Ms. Byrne’s letter states that the 14-acre wetland off East Foxboro Street “contained red maple saplings and occasional specimens of Atlantic white cedar … and increased water levels caused by human interference with normal drainage patterns appear to be the single factor … responsible for recent site degradation” [my italics]. Note that any abrupt change in water levels (high or low) can disrupt cedar swamps[1] as well as other tree habitat.

Mr. Towner, a co-author of the article, now states that the cedar swamp area comprises two portions (west and east), separated by railroad tracks, whose water levels function separately; that the east portion, abutting East Foxboro Street, has not “been part of the cedar swamp for generations”; and that he “wrote about Sharon’s White Cedar Swamp, not [the area along East Foxboro Street].” The isolation of the east portion by railroad tracks is confirmed by the 1993 wildlife habitat assessment, but that report envisioned that draining accumulated high water and managing water levels via a culvert and flashboards “will … contribute to the gradual restoration of a mixed forest canopy of red maple and Atlantic white cedar.” According to Ms. Byrne, the restoration she sought has in fact resulted in new growth off East Foxboro Street, including “young cedars mixed with red maple trees.” So, it is possible that both portions (west and east) were at one time, and may again become, part of a mixed-stand cedar forest.

However, this relevant detail—a distinction between separate east and west areas of the cedar swamp—was not made in the article presented to the newsletter for publication, which merely described the White Cedar Swamp as lying “west of Lake Massapoag.” Consequently, the map inserted by the editor to illustrate the swamp’s location took no note of such a distinction. Mr. Towner now states that the east portion was “flooded in the mid-eighties because of plugged drainage pipes,” which agrees with the descriptions in Ms. Byrne’s letter.

The point is that all this confusion was occasioned by an article that did not meet good journalistic standards, and the SFOC newsletter should not have published it as is. Before publication, I argued that at most it be published as an opinion column, not as a straight news article.

Whether the article’s thesis is correct, I can’t say. I do know that the errors and omissions attending its publication undermine the credibility of the SFOC and its newsletter, and do not keep faith with our goal of informing readers objectively about conservation. I was not satisfied with the article because it did not give much actual information on past activities (e.g., draining or flooding by whom, when, why) nor scientific evaluations of the swamp’s present vegetation and viability, its need for restoration, and what such restoration would entail.

In 1999 the Conservation Commission nominated the “250-acre cedar swamp” for restoration under the WRBP (Wetland Restoration and Banking Program) in the state’s Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, which provided technical assistance and help securing funding. A WRBP team, including a white cedar specialist from Yale University, completed a preliminary site assessment. A sum of $50,000 was being sought for a fuller evaluation and a draft wetland restoration plan (implementation costs to restore a white cedar swamp were said to run up to $500,000).[2] “The project was not pursued by our program,” wrote a WRBP manager recently, “primarily because of uncertainty regarding a proposed municipal well and potential effects on the site’s hydrology.”

Statements like These cedars are dead and dying because the water table has been lowered by human activities such as ditching and pumping of municipal wells sound logical, given growing population and increased development, but in this article they were unexplained.

“Ditching” refers to a drainage ditch that was dug after Heights houses were built in 1950, in order to prevent wet basements and failing septic tanks. Norfolk County also maintains ditches in Sharon for mosquito control (cedar swamps are habitat for the mosquitoes that spread the Eastern equine encephalitis virus through bird populations)[3]. As to “pumping,” for years there has been a debate between factions in local government over well siting and water use in Sharon, and how to balance a sufficient water supply for human use and the conservation of water resources. Six years ago there was intense disagreement over whether a new well could be sited on Chase Drive near the cedar swamp without affecting it by pumping; that debate is ongoing.[4]  I do not think SFOC should involve itself uncritically on any side of that debate.

Alice Cheyer

1. Throughout the northeast, only a fraction of earlier [cedar] stands remain. . . . Cedar forests may be composed exclusively of an even-aged cedar stand of close-ranked trees, or of uneven-aged mixed stands. In mixed stands, the most frequently encountered trees are red maple and black gum. . . . Mature white cedars are adapted to a wide range of water depths. However, rapid, prolonged change in water depth stresses or kills mature trees, and kills seedlings outright. . . . An abrupt change in any of these regimes (e.g., flooding a dry site, or drying a flooded site) is, by itself, a stress factor which may negatively impact the community. Human activities in upland areas immediately adjacent to cedar bogs also adversely affect white cedars. . . . Land-use changes in upland areas can impact water table height, water flow rates, and stream flooding characteristics -- factors that are critical to the structure and function of cedar swamps. --New Hampshire Coastal Program fact sheet,

2. Neponset River Watershed Wetlands Restoration Plan, February 2000.


4. See, Water Management Advisory Committee, meeting minutes, January 19, 2006, and April 6, 2006.

Excerpt from e-mails, April 11 and 12, 2006, Conservation Commission and DPW Superintendent, regarding new well sites:

We strongly support the DPW’s efforts regarding the NSTAR site exploration and . . . potential sites along Edge Hill Road. . . . With regard to further consideration of well sites within the Great Cedar Swamp resource area, however, . . . we have serious concerns. . . . The Commission strongly opposes any further effort aimed at developing this very sensitive site within or adjacent to [the cedar swamp].

DPW Superintendent:
While the Commission has certainly stated on numerous occasions their concerns regarding source exploration at the Chase Drive site, the Commission has never brought forward the record of data. . . . Please understand that the Water Department is proposing to perform pump tests at the site to directly measure impacts at the proposed withdrawal rate.

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