New Plan Cuts Wildfire Threat

Compromise at State Level Brings Agreement to Start Work Soon To Ease Worries About Fires In Vineyard State Forest

By JOSHUA SABATINI

The Department of Environmental Management's Division of Forests and Parks won permission Tuesday to move forward with new efforts to manage the 5,200-acre Manuel F. Correllus State Forest.

The high risk of forest fires poses a danger for residents abutting the state property. In June, Bob Durand, secretary of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, arrived on the Vineyard with news of an initiative to address that danger.

DEM, the state agency in charge of managing the forest, has always maintained the need to clear and widen the forest's 31 miles of firebreaks. The agency could not muster the funds for the project and their plan, and by the end of 1990s the plan came under close scrutiny by another state agency, the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) and a division of this department, Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. Natural Heritage keeps track of rare plant and animal species throughout the state and was concerned about the 28 state-listed rare species in the state forest.

Mr. Durand announced in June that the two agencies reached a compromise that would allow DEM to decrease the threat of wildfire while properly managing the forest. As part of the compromise, DEM had to get a permit from the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife for any work near or with rare species. DEM announced plans to begin widening the existing exterior firebreaks to 500 feet and the interior breaks to 100 feet by August.

A spokesman for Mr. Durand, Doug Pizzi, said work was delayed on the forest because DEM was drafting an application for the permit and contracting work. The Department of Fisheries and Wildlife granted a conservation permit, with a minimum duration of five years, to DEM on Tuesday. Mr. Pizzi said that work on the forest can now begin, soon after Labor Day.

The only work happening at the state forest this month is being done by two Island botanists, Wendy Colbert and Carol Knapp, who have been hired by the state to flag the areas where there are rare species.

William Rivers, management forester for DEM, said, "DEM is moving along and has sent out request-for-proposals." Those requests are for three types of forest management: for bulldozing, for grazing animals and for a feller-buncher, a tractor machine that grasps trees, cuts them, and holds on to the trunks.

The permit begins as follows: "DFW hereby issues a conservation Permit to DEM authorizing the taking of the 28 state-listed rare species in conjunction with the enlargement and maintenance of approximately 32 miles of firebreaks."

Why "the taking"? Mr. Pizzi said, "During the course of the work, some rare species may get inadvertently taken. Also DEM will cut certain trees that represent a habitat for a certain butterfly."

Director of DFW Wayne MacCallum issued the permit for reasons stated in the document: "For purposes of public safety to provide for the protection of human life and property that could result from the uncontrolled burning of large fuel loads now present and management of the rare species through controlled burning."

The Department of Environmental Management will remove trees, shrubs and some vegetation by means of harrowing (tillage), mowing and sheep grazing.

The permit was issued on eight conditions. DEM has to create a five-year firebreak management plan approved by Natural Heritage by Jan. 1, 2002, and at least a three-year research project with results showing the effectiveness of a variety of management methods, such as harrowing, for the conservation or enhancement of rare species habitat coupled with the reduction of the risk for wildfires.

Harrowing is a method that scientists cannot agree on. Some feel the method has negative effects, others only positive. The permit requires DEM not to use harrowing on any section of the state forest within 200 feet of a state-listed rare plant or any major frost-bottom habitat.

Natural Heritage believes frost bottoms are "critical to the survival of more than half of the state-listed rare lepidoptera species, which occur on the site."

DEM is required to monitor every appearance of a rare species along the firebreaks as well as any non-native invasive plants.

Based on DEM's data, the widening of the firebreaks will clear an additional 501 acres in the forest. The work will clear a total of 200 acres of closed canopy oak forest, 132 acres of open canopy oak forest, 85 acres of conifer plantation, 49 acres of scrub oak, 27 acres of pitch pine and eight acres of frost bottom.

DFW states in the permit, "There is expected to be an unknown level of habitat loss and of reduced habitat quality for state-listed rare species habitat of the firebreaks."

While DEM presumably will remove some of the habitat, the permit requires the agency to remove, within five years, a total of 216 acres of dense conifer plantation and restore these sites to sandplain grassland and heath or pitch pine and scrub oak, types of habitat conducive to the rare species. Natural Heritage must approve of each selected site.

Mr. Pizzi said, "The secretary feels this is a workable plan that will take care of public safety and take care of it in an environmentally safe manner."