Groups spar over tree cutting on Merrit Parkway

Two months before the World Monuments Fund put the Merritt Parkway on its list of endangered sites around the globe, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) started chopping trees along the 9-mile stretch between Congress Street and the Route-8 Interchange in Trumbull.

Now, with the majority of tree-cutting finished, many preservationists are complaining that the DOT has gone overboard, characterizing the work as "clear-cutting" and saying that it's fundamentally altered the integrity of the parkway.

"We've never seen this many trees removed in one section of the highway before," said Jill Smyth, chairman of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy. "We were initially concerned about the potential impact of tree removal, but the plan gave no detail for the actual size or quantity of trees to be removed."

The destruction, Smyth said, exceeded her expectations and the conservancy is further concerned about future DOT projects for which funds are not already in place for replanting.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the World Monuments Fund and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation have all written letters to Gov. M. Jodi Rell expressing their concerns, Smyth said. The conservancy is asking area residents to do the same.

On the conservancy's Web site (, there is a long post airing its grievance. One part states: "Cut trees and stumps line the roadway, barren slopes abut the bridges, residential homes and back yards are now visible. There are plans for replanting trees and shrubs. However, with the excess removal of trees the character of the Parkway is severely altered."

But Mary Baier, DOT's supervising engineer for the project, says that these complaints are both exaggerated and near-sighted. The tree removals, she said, were necessary for the safety of both drivers and construction workers. Many of the trees were leaning dangerously toward the parkway, she said, and many others were either dying or already dead. "I know the conservancy looks at this and thinks we're taking down more trees than we should," she said. "But any job that we do looks unkempt during construction. That's just the way it is. But when we're completed, it will be a showcase and it will be gorgeous."

According to Baier, there have been three different types of plant removal: clearing and grubbing of large trees and stumps, eliminating invasive species like poison ivy and thick bushes, and selectively thinning out smaller trees so that larger trees around them have more of a chance to survive.

"We are saving a lot of trees, too," she said. "If you drive up and down you'll see trees behind orange fencing. That means those trees are being saved and we're not allowed to touch them."

According to Baier, the clearing and grubbing work is about 75 percent finished -- the work on the sides of the highway are done, she said, and next summer the DOT will address the parkway's median.

Baier said that the invasive species removal is 95 percent finished and will likely be wrapped up by winter. The selective thinning work, she said, is 90 percent done and will also be addressed on the median next summer.

The DOT will begin its replanting project this spring, she added. The goal of the landscaping will be to showcase the parkway and its bridges as the "queen of this state's highway system," she said, "the pride of the Connecticut transportation system."

To do so, the DOT will include a variety of different types of plants, Baier said, such as flowers, low bushes and dogwoods, as well as saplings, medium-sized and full-grown trees.

"Sometimes, when projects are finished they look like they were just planted," she said. "When we walk away from this job, it will look like we were never even there."

The replanting project is scheduled to be completed by 2012.