The state's fire control plans for the 5,200-acre Manuel F. Corellus State Forest have come under attack by the scientific community and the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a watchdog organization. The advocacy group threatens possible legal action to block state forest teams from clearing hundreds of acres of woodland along strategic fire lines.

The Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the agency in charge of managing the forest, announced plans to move into the forest today to begin widening the exterior fire breaks to 500 feet to protect about 600 abutting residences and structures from the threat of wildfire. DEM plans to use a harrow on about 200 acres, but not within 200 feet of any rare plant species, as well as bulldozing and other management methods such as mowing and brush cutting.

Opponents to DEM's plan have raised concerns that the methods will not protect the 29 state-listed rare species in the forest, an area with the highest density of rare species per acre than any other land in the commonwealth.

For several years, the state agency in charge of tracking the rare plant and animal species throughout the state, the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW), could not agree with DEM's proposed strategies to minimize the fire risk in a way that also preserved the habitat for rare species.

Finally, DFW approved a conservation permit August 21 granting DEM permission to begin widening the 32 acres of existing firebreaks. DEM plans to work on the exterior breaks before moving into the interior forest, which it will widen to 100 feet.

Late last week, the PEER group, an alliance of employees working within the state and federal resource agencies to promote professional ethics, ensure accountability and protect public health and the environment, stepped into the controversy, stating: "Overriding objections raised by its own staff, DFW has hastily approved a plan to begin flattening hundreds of acres in the state forest."

Critics contend DEM has for years opposed less costly and damaging fuel reduction methods and has kept the public misinformed about the destructive effects of a harrow. In addition, they point out that the permit was granted without review under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA).

MEPA requires any state agency to file an Environmental Notification Form (ENF) prior to work in a sensitive habitat. Upon the filing, for 30 days, the public is given the chance to respond to the issues and then a management plan is drafted before any work is allowed.

Eric Wingerter, field director for PEER, said, "A plan should have been in place prior to the issuing of the permit."

He also warned that if DEM begins work this week in the state forest, "PEER will pursue every avenue to stop the project."

Doug Pizzi, spokesman for Bob Durand, secretary of the executive office of environmental affairs, said an ENF form was filed last Friday. Mr. Pizzi said the MEPA regulation allows DEM to move ahead with their work this week because the threat to the safety of abutting residences qualifies the Vineyard situation as an emergency.

The wildfire threat in the forest has existed for more than six years. Mr. Wingerter contends the emergency provisions of the regulation mean that work can occur only if there is an immediate and present emergency, such as an actual fire.

Even though the ENF was filed, Mr. Wingerter said, "In 30 days the damage will have been done."

Paul Goldstein, of the department of zoology at the field museum of Natural History and the scientist responsible for discovering 18 of the 29 rare species in the forest, said: "I find the use of the false dichotomy of conservation versus fire safety distasteful, irresponsible and particularly reckless. MEPA requires state agencies to take all feasible measures to avoid, minimize and mitigate damage to the environment. It is my opinion that such measures are not currently being pursued."

A scientific study conducted for DEM reported that harrowing a few firebreaks would do no lasting damage to the biology as a whole. Critics said the study is flawed and that any scientist not involved in the case would agree.

In 1999, a study conducted by David Foster and Glenn Motzkin of Harvard Forest of Harvard University, was funded by DFW. The study was praised by many Island scientists and the Boston Globe described the restoration project recommended by the study as the single largest restoration project in New England conservation history. The report stated, "Harrowing is a highly destructive and intrusive practice that irreparably alters the soil structure and physical and biological environment and initiates long-term and irreversible changes in the vegetation. Importantly, the native species decline and a weedy flora of herbs, shrubs and trees increase."

Mr. Foster and Mr. Motzkin said, "A great opportunity will be missed and a great disservice to a unique landscape will be done if the proposed plan is to proceed."

Bill Rivers, management forester for DEM, said the widening of the breaks is necessary. Mr. Rivers said breaks of similar size are used in Australia and in California, where the chapparal landscape is in many respects similar to the state forest's scrub oaks. While some scientists believe fire breaks are not a sure way to prevent wildfires from spreading, most agree they do slow down the fire and allow fire fighters the space to work. Mr. Rivers said the harrow will not destroy the habitat, is cost-effective and will be used only in selected areas, not where there are rare plant and animal species.

The director of DFW, Wayne MacCallum, said the permit allows DEM to use the harrow, but also requires the agency to monitor its effects on the habitat. One of the permit's conditions states, "This project should be designed to include multiple plots to at least test the use of harrowing, mowing and sheep grazing."

Mr. Pizza said the secretary feels DEM's plan is a workable one that provides for public safety while protecting habitat. The six fire chiefs on the Island have sent letters of support for DEM's work, emphasizing the urgent need for establishing such fire breaks as soon as possible.

The director of DEM, Todd Frederick, in his filing of the ENF with Mr. Durand, stated: "DEM must commence the emergency work within the exterior firebreaks only. This portion of the project is categorized as an emergency due to the imminent threat to public safety and property that could result from the uncontrolled burning of the large fuel loads present within the state forest."