Vision Emerges for Future of State Forest

By THOMAS DUNLOP

State forestry officials will meet May 24 with key scientists to try to unify the environmental vision for how to manage and restore the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, the chief forester for the commonwealth told the Gazette last week.

The state will then convene at least one public hearing this summer to explain what the ecologists have agreed to, and find out what Vineyarders want to see happen in the forest from both an environmental and recreational point of view.

The state forest spreads across more than 5,100 acres in the heartland of Martha's Vineyard, protecting its main aquifer from development and serving as an entirely undisturbed habitat for a host of insects and plants found nowhere else in New England and, in several instances, the rest of the eastern third of the country, scientists say.

For decades, the forest suffered from a lack of funding for even the most basic management. Vast plantations of red and white pine trees, planted starting in the 1920s and intended to establish an Island timber industry, were never thinned properly; others, planted outside their range, eventually suffered from a fatal blight. Forestry officials and ecologists agree that the neglect increased the risk of an uncontrollable wildfire and still threatens vital parts of the environment in the forest itself.

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Earlier this month, a delegation of state officials reviewed the work accomplished in the forest since February 2004, when the state department of conservation and recreation, which owns the forest, secured a $240,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service to manage and revitalize state forests in southeastern Massachusetts. A substantial share of this money went to the state forest on the Vineyard, state officials say.

"I was very, very impressed by the type of work they performed," said Jim DiMaio, chief forester of the state Bureau of Forestry.

John Varkonda, superintendent of the state forest, led seven state officials on a day-long tour of the forest, which fire experts say is sited on the third most flammable landscape in the nation, after the Oakland Hills of California and the pine barrens of New Jersey. Historically, wildfires have roared through the scrub oak and pitch pine at ferocious rates, crossing from West Tisbury to the edge of Edgartown in as few as five hours.

In this first year of funding, scrub oak was mowed near the northern border to reduce the risk that wildfire might escape the forest on a strong southwest breeze, Mr. Varkonda said. Fire lanes were widened in the western half of the forest to give crews better access to the interior.

"The fire lanes in West Tisbury were a lot narrower, so we did a lot more tree removal, a lot more grinding," Mr. Varkonda said. "A couple of the fire lanes might have been 15 or 20 feet wide; they are now 80 feet wide."

In agreement with the state natural heritage and endangered species program, foresters also removed a 70-acre stand of highly flammable spruce trees that endangered the ecological balance in one of the western frost bottoms, a vestige of the glacial melt from thousands of years ago.

"The trees were actually starting to change the physical characteristics of the frost bottom - the frosts lasting well into spring, the exceedingly high temperatures during the summertime," Mr. Varkonda said. "Those are the characteristics in which the rare moths that they are all concerned about - and rightly so - thrive."

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Next year, the state plans to thin stands of combustible pitch pines near the perimeter. It will use prescribed burns to reduce the low-lying scrub deeper in the forest along the rest of the northern and eastern borders. Also slated for removal are the dead, red pine along the bike path near the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road.

The state forest is believed to support the most concentrated collection of rare insects in the northeast, as well as plants found almost nowhere else in the country. Harvard Forest, the research center of Harvard University, described in a 1999 study how factors of geography, soil and climate have conspired to create an oak woodland like no other in the world - all the more valuable because it has never been tilled for agriculture or disturbed in any other ecologically debilitating way.

David R. Foster, the head of Harvard Forest, said recently that the complete removal of the old alien red and white pine plantations, planted up to 80 years ago, would be considered the largest single ecological restoration project in New England history. The only thing preventing this, all parties say, is the prohibitive expense of shipping more than a million board-feet of timber to the mainland and finding a market for it.

Beyond that, one subject of debate concerns fire: What role did it play in the forest before the arrival of Europeans? Some scientists say there is no direct evidence for extensive prehistoric fires in what is now the forest; other scientists infer that Native Americans must have burned the forest landscape regularly from the time of their arrival because many rare plants and insects in the forest could not have established themselves or survived without frequent burns. Scientists believe Indians used fire to create open areas in which to live, hunt and grow berries on the arid, sandy soils.

The May 24 meeting will focus on the fate of the remaining plantations, which encompass about 350 acres of the forest, and how much fire and mowing ought to occur in the forest as part of the restoration work, Mr. DiMaio said.

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"Maybe it's through incremental implementation and careful monitoring and review that we can move forward, instead of looking at something very large and very dramatic," he said.

Once scientists have reached a consensus, he added, the state will hold at least one public hearing this summer to hear on what should and should not happen as forest restoration and management evolves.

A central question is how to guarantee money for the work over the long term. Well into the 1990s, the management budget for the state forest was more than $2,000 a year.

"I'm reasonably confident," Mr. DiMaio said. "We gained another forest service grant of $324,000 for southeast Massachusetts [this year], but the main emphasis is Martha's Vineyard at this time. I really believe we need to pay attention to the fuels and ecosystem restoration in southeast Massachusetts. It's a priority with me, that's all I can say."