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Dog walkers, wildlife lovers and strollers emerged from last week’s deep freeze Sunday to find a prized patch of forest in Scott Woods, north of Hawk Island County Park, marked off by stakes and orange tape.
Lansing’s public service director, Andy Kilpatrick, said “about 50 or 60 trees” have been marked for clearing so workers can replace an aging sanitary sewer this summer.
But some local residents are less than confident the city will minimize the damage. Others are upset that the project was undertaken without notice.
The project zone crosses Sycamore Creek, the River Trail and a rare patch of spectacular wildlife habitat.
“That’s going to suck for me,” Oren Kennedy said. Sunday afternoon, Kennedy, a wildlife photographer, took time from his usual Sunday hunt at Scott Woods to size up the zone of planned destruction.
“I was just walking through there,” he said, pointing to a tree inside the zone. “I just shot a pair of pileated woodpeckers back there. I had six deer watching me.”
He pointed to his right. “There’s also an owl over there I couldn’t identify yet. He’s hanging low because crows are flying through, and owls get attacked by crows.”
Kilpatrick said the city has to replace a worn-out sewer main dating from 1964 that runs from Willard to Clifton avenues. The old cast iron pipe will not be removed. A new PVC pipe about a foot in diameter will be laid next to it.
Although the new sewer is scheduled to be installed this summer, the trees have to be removed at the end of February, or early in March, to keep endangered bats from roosting in trees that are doomed to go down.
“We will try to minimize the amount of trees that need to be removed, based on the width we need for equipment,” Kilpatrick said. “Obviously, you don’t need it for the sewer itself, it’s only a 12-inch sewer.”
Kilpatrick said it’s possible that not all trees in the rectangle surrounding the sewer will have to be removed. The whole area was marked, he said, to give contractors information on which to base their bids.
“A number of those trees are already dead,” Kilpatrick offered.
But the dead trees are a crucial part of Scott Woods’ fragile ecosystem, permanent or temporary home to dozens of species of birds, mammals and amphibians.
“That’s what’s drawing the wildlife,” Kennedy said.
He pointed to two dead trees in the middle of the marked-off sewer zone. Both were riddled with holes made by pileated woodpeckers, a frequent sight here. It takes as long as five years for a dead tree to become soft enough for the pileated woodpeckers to peck.
Even before Sunday’s thaw, early last week, the city began to get inquiries from concerned residents who spotted the stakes. A meeting was scheduled Tuesday night to discuss the project with residents.
Another frequent Scott Woods walker, Lauren Hampton, joined a steady stream of strollers Sunday. Hampton lives nearby, on Clifton Street.
“It’s really disturbing to me,” she said of the planned tree removal. “I use this park all the time. This is the most beautiful part of the River Trail.”
While Hampton was talking, two more walkers, Doug Reynolds and his wife, Gay, stopped by.
“It will make a mess out of the place,” Reynolds said, when he heard what was up. “We come here and watch deer. There’s owls, eagles, hawks.”
“We love all four seasons here,” his wife said.
Lauren Cooper, a doctoral student in MSU’s Forestry Department, is not satisfied with the city’s handling of the project.
Cooper leads MSU’s Forest Carbon and Climate program.
“The whole thing feels sloppy,” Cooper said. “There’s no information on line, no environmental impact statement. Why is it that the community and the taxpayers don’t know about the project but companies are coming and bidding on the work?”
Cooper said she bought her home in the Scott Woods area three and a half years ago “because of the woods.”
She bikes the trail, walks her dog at the dog park, hauls her kids to nearby Hawk Island in a wagon and takes them tubing at the sledding hill.
“We use that park a lot. It’s an amazing asset and it makes Lansing a great place to live for us.”
Among the areas of expertise listed on her MSU bio is “stakeholder engagement,” an area where she thinks the city has fallen short.
“There’s still no signs there,” she said.
“I don’t know whether the people who live up near those woods know about the project.”
The project was news to Kennedy (the photographer), to Hampton and to Doug and Gay Reynolds Sunday, although they use the trail frequently. “There was absolutely no transparency on this one,” Hampton said. “It seems like a done deal.”
Cooper said the city could at least have given notice to the Scott Woods neighborhood group, which meets monthly.
“Everyone around here takes ownership of this place,” Hampton said.
“Planting flowers, cleaning trash, putting in the drinking fountain at the pavilion.”
As of last Friday, Cooper said she had received no response to her questions about the project from city parks director Brett Kaschinske.
“If you work in city government, stakeholder engagement is part of your job,” Cooper said. “I’m startled at how unhelpful they’ve been. We feel a little sidelined.”
“It’s understandable,” Kilpatrick said.
“We should have sent something out to the residents in advance.”
He said the clearing will take a week or so to complete and will begin in “late February or early March.”