Forest Officials Pledge Hearings to Discuss Massive Cutting Plan

By TOM DUNLOP

A key official with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation said this week that the public will have its say before the state moves ahead with any plan to clear hundreds of acres of planted trees in the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest.

James Rassman, management forester for southeastern Massachusetts, also sought to assure Vineyarders that the plan to log 528 acres of red and white pine – amounting to a tenth of the forest – is in its earliest stages. While standing by his arguments that both types of trees ought to come out of the forest in order to protect an irreplaceable offshore ecosystem of native oak woodlands and rare plants and animals, Mr. Rassman said the whole idea could still fall apart on economic grounds.

"The concern now? Fuel prices," Mr. Rassman said in a telephone interview with the Gazette on Wednesday. "Diesel's at something like $2.21 a gallon. And you can imagine if you're moving material from [the Vineyard to] New Bedford to Maine, it can be very expensive. Something as simple as oil prices being at $54 a barrel, that means this project might not happen on Martha's Vineyard. That's the truth. And it's an interesting thing to see how fuel prices affect everyday life."

Mr. Rassman said he has had informal conversations with loggers and paper manufacturers to learn whether there is even a market for the healthy and merchantable white pine, which stands on about 175 acres of the forest, and for the red pine, which stands on about 350 acres. The red pine is dead or dying of a blight and considered virtually worthless. The challenge for the state, if the plan is approved, is to find a mainland logging operation, specializing in the removal of trees from islands, that will either pay to clear both the red and white pine, or do so at a reasonable cost.

The trees were planted in an arid, unpopulated, fire-swept, 5,200-acre oak woodland once known to Islanders as the Great Plain. In 1925 the goal was to create an Island lumber industry. But because of transportation costs - and later because of a pathogen among the red pines and a lack of vigorous management among the white pines, among other problems - a mainland market for the timber never materialized.

A 1999 study by Harvard Forest - a department of Harvard University based in Petersham that studies the biology and conservation of forests - concluded that the state forest was of unique ecological importance, unlike any other habitat in the Northeast. Unpopulated and mostly undisturbed by agriculture, the forest contained the most concentrated collection of rare plants and insects in the commonwealth and perhaps all of New England, the study said. But the rare plants and animals - and the natural woodland of scrub and taller oaks that supported them - were being overshadowed and crowded out, not only by the plantations, but also by younger spruce trees planted in the cold and ancient valleys known as frost bottoms.

The Harvard study offered a blueprint for the removal, over time, of the spruce and the pine, recommending strongly that the land not be scarred by the logging operations in a way that threatened native vegetation or allowed invasive species to move in. The state has embraced the findings of the report. This week Mr. Rassman held fast to his argument that all 528 remaining acres of planted red and white pine ought to come out. The goal is "to give future generations a suite of native species and native ecosystems intact, minimizing some of our past footprints. That's really what it's about," he said.

Mr. Rassman also said he understands the concern of Islanders who have argued that the white pine is healthy, attractive, and now playing an ecological role of its own in the forest. He said the department will follow official guidelines set by the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Agency on logging procedures, including notification of the public.

The department will go even further, he said.

"We still would go through a process of meeting with the fire chiefs, meeting with the selectmen, and the conservation commissions, and the land commissions, and also having some type of open meetings, where the public would be invited to listen to the project, get a chance to comment on it, give their ideas, voice their support or opposition. We fully are prepared for that. We just haven't started it yet, because we don't want to waste everyone's time [until we know that the economics of the project will work]," he said.

If it goes forward the project is expected to be the largest ecological restoration project in the history of New England.

The state has not yet written a management plan for the forest, Mr. Rassman said. Two plans were drafted over the course of the previous 25 years, according to the Harvard Forest report, but neither was ever finished or published. Still, the state is qualified to set goals and do work in the forest now, he said.

In May of this year Mr. Rassman's department received a conditional Forest Stewardship Council certificate to manage its woodlands from Scientific Certification Systems, an independent and internationally recognized group that determines whether forests are being managed and harvested in sustainable ways.

"We do management all over the state," Mr. Rassman said, "and we can continue to do that under conditional certification, as long as we're making a good-faith effort to bring all our planning up to date." The commonwealth must write management plans for all the forests in all eight districts. It is completing two a year, and Mr. Rassman said he expects a management plan for the Vineyard state forest will be finished no sooner than two years from now.

Asked whether the state ought to consider so large a logging operation before a management plan is written, Mr. Rassman said his agency has a set of guidelines, approved by an in-house stewardship committee and Scientific Certification Systems, that apply to all the forests under its care.

"The first goal, when it comes down to our forest management program, is to address threatened and endangered-species issues," Mr. Rassman said. "And the second is to restore native ecosystems . . . What we've agreed to is, we're going to apply these guidelines, even if we don't have a formal management plan. The two guidelines that pop up are rare species and native ecosystems."