Harvard Forest Expert Describes Clearing the Way for Restoration

By TOM DUNLOP

It will be the largest ecological restoration project in the history of New England, said David R. Foster of Harvard Forest.

Mr. Foster and his colleague Glenn Motzkin authored a study five years ago that formed the basis for the hugely ambitious new plan to log 528 acres of planted trees in the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest.

News that the state has begun to explore ways to clear the plantations in the forest surfaced last week.

In a telephone conversation with the Gazette on Wednesday, Mr. Foster enthusiastically endorsed the plan now in the works with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to clear away blighted red pines, as well as healthier and more marketable white pines, planted on a tenth of the state forest landscape. The forest spreads across nearly 5,200 acres in the center of the Island.

Mr. Foster said the logging and removal of the red and white pines will restore the native woodland that already exists in the state forest, but is being overshadowed and crowded out by thousands of trees planted up to 80 years ago.

"The way the story is being told is, they're going out there to eliminate something," said Mr. Foster. "But the vision - what's the future landscape going to be, what's the objective? - could be painted more explicitly. The objective is to create this landscape of native vegetation. And that vegetation actually will have a huge amount of forest on it. It's going to be oak forest, pitch pine and scrub oak in the frost bottoms."

The findings and recommendations embraced by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which assumed ownership of the forest last year, came from a paper authored by Mr. Foster and Mr. Motzkin. It was published in April 1999 by Harvard Forest, a center for research and education in the subjects of ecology, conservation and forest biology. Harvard Forest is located in Petersham and run by Harvard University.

The study - Historical Influences on the Landscape of Martha's Vineyard: Perspectives on the Management of the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest - established that the forest was the largest unbroken tract of glacial outwash soil known as sandplain left in the world, and that it was home to an unrivaled concentration of rare and indigenous plants and insects in the state, and maybe even in New England. Of enormous importance is the fact that the forest landscape was never farmed, according to the study. This means that entire families of native wildlife, fundamental to the ecology of the Island, were never eradicated or even very much disturbed.

Red and white pines were planted in the forest beginning in 1925 in an effort to convert the scrubby oak barrens into a marketable forest. But the red pines suffered from a lethal blight and the white pines were attacked by a weevil that caused the trees to branch too soon, shortening the length of marketable wood. A mainland market for the Vineyard trees never developed. The red pines are now dead or dying, and the white pines have a track record of falling over in hurricanes. The state hopes to find a way to economically clear away these trees, all at once, while some value remains. The commonwealth estimates that logging will clear away a million board feet of white pine and 5,000 cords of red from 500 acres of forest.

The clearing project is still in the early stages of planning, and state officials said they expect to discuss the project with land use boards and conservation groups on the Vineyard before the project goes out to bid. The logging could begin and end within the next year, though, if a company specializing in island logging can be found and contracted to do the job.

Another concern, Mr. Foster said, centers on the spruce trees planted more recently in the forest frost bottoms, long hollows running north and south from the boundary where the glaciers stopped. Icy water once rushed through these depressions to the sea.

The spruces - 10 to 20 feet tall, and roughly four inches in diameter - are "a huge threat because the bottoms are where the greatest concentration of unusual insect species are," Mr. Foster said. He said the insect communities, like the native plants, are "going to be broken up tremendously by the growth of these spruce. Those things should be taken out, and that should be a really high priority."

Mr. Foster also suggested the department consider adding several stands of mature spruce trees to the list for clearing. "My guess is that that's the most valuable wood out there," he said. "There's some beautiful spruce plantations of large trees. Mills from Canada are driving to central Massachusetts to pick that stuff up all the time. I'd expect there'd be real value in that. There's plenty there to make it attractive."

A restored native Island forest would be filled with oak, Mr. Foster said, with scrub running through the frost bottoms and "a mosaic of native forests," including oak and pitch pine, rising above the uplands. "The beauty of this operation is that as you go through and selectively remove these nonnative trees, you're leaving a native landscape - a substantially intact landscape. So it's one of the most straightforward and compelling restoration projects you can imagine," he said.

Managing the forest in this way - scrub oak dominating the lowlands, mature oaks in the higher places - will also reduce the danger that fire will run wild in the forest, or worse, escape from the forest, Mr. Foster said. The untended red and white pines present a substantial wildfire risk now, foresters and firefighters say. "Forests of oaks are of relatively low flammability. They carry low-intensity fires that burn along the ground, that don't move very quickly," Mr. Foster said.

Mr. Foster said the clearing and restoration of the state forest is a project of unprecedented ecological scope in the northeastern part of the country. "Removing a dam on a river in Maine restores a heck of a lot more area. But most restoration projects are parts of acres, or tens of acres. This is of a scale which is completely out of the ordinary," he concluded.