In late 2019, the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation — a venerable nonprofit land trust and leading conservation organization on Martha’s Vineyard — made an exciting announcement in its fall newsletter.

The organization had purchased a new trail cutting machine. Called the Toro Dingo Mini Skid Steer, the purchase was made possible by a generous grant from the Jesse and Betsy Fink Foundation — a philanthropic fund dedicated to promoting biodiversity and environmental stewardship.

Map from project narrative submitted to the state delineates trails.

In the newsletter announcement, Sheriff’s Meadow celebrated the machine’s arrival.

“This small, nimble, and versatile piece of machinery will make trail creation and maintenance work vastly more efficient,” the article said. “The foundation has already put the machine to good use on Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation trails and on trails in the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, where we have been helping.”

Nearly 18 months later, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation will close almost 25 miles of new trails in the state forest that were cleared without permits. Although no penalties have been issued, Sheriff’s Meadow will be required to monitor the trail closures and pay for their restoration, which will take place over a period of at least five years.

The trails were carved through 32 acres of habitat for rare and endangered species — including buck moths and eastern whipoorwills — as well as ecologically sensitive frost pockets.

At a two-hour public information session last week, the state provided almost no timeline and took almost no responsibility for the trail clearing, saying DCR became aware of the problem in April 2020.

But interviews with Sheriff’s Meadow staff, board members and others familiar with the clearing, as well as an examination of public records and emails over the past three years, offer a more nuanced picture of the events that led to the announcement.

They reveal a long trail of good intentions that began with a once-promising partnership between the state and Sheriff’s Meadow to maintain a largely neglected, 5,000-acre state forest. Over time the relationship was hampered by miscommunication, lack of oversight by the state and inadequate attention to environmental impacts by Sheriff’s Meadow, highlighting the challenges of third-party land management.

Public records provided to the Gazette also suggest that state officials knew about at least some of the unpermitted trail cutting before April 2020, with a reference to illegally built trails as early as January of 2020, raising questions about DCR’s timeline of events. In a Jan. 7, 2020 email to another staff member, Paul Jahnige, trail section head for DCR, referenced the state forest project. “I understand there may be some trails on the ground that are not on our current map. These might be historic, or might have been built more recently with permission (although I don’t think we’ve got trail proposal forms on any of them) or there might or might not be illegally built trails,” he wrote.

According to a 90-page project narrative submitted by Sheriff’s Meadow to the state in July 2020, the trail work began in the southern forest in June 2018 and continued through February 2020, with most work occurring in January and November of 2019.

In an interview Wednesday and follow-up phone call Thursday, Sheriff’s Meadow executive director Adam Moore said the organization and DCR had signed a written stewardship agreement in April 2018 to conduct work in the forest. Mr. Moore read aloud an email from Chris Bruno, who was state forest superintendent at the time, confirming the agreement, which broadly focused on trail maintenance and said any new trail work would receive proper permitting from state agencies.

Mr. Moore said the work, and trails project, were spearheaded by former board member Michael Berwind, who led the foundation’s trails committee, although staff and other volunteers were also involved. Mr. Moore said he was aware of the new trails that were created dating to 2018, and he said he was told by Mr. Bruno that they had received proper approvals. Mr. Moore said when he asked about permits, Mr. Bruno said they would be provided, although ultimately they were not.

Mr. Bruno, who was hired in 2017, abruptly left his position in March 2020, a month before the state said it became aware of the clearing. He has since become the new park manager at Taylorsville Lake State Park in Kentucky. Contacted by phone and text message this week, Mr. Bruno declined to comment.

Mr. Berwind, who designed the trails and did a large portion of the clearing until December 2019, is no longer on the board of Sheriff’s Meadow, and also declined to comment.

But speaking to the Gazette this week, Mr. Moore took full responsibility for the missteps. He said in hindsight he was at fault for not asking to see official permitting documents before volunteers and board members conducted the trail work. He called his reliance on verbal commitments instead of documents a mistake, and he reaffirmed Sheriff Meadow’s steadfast commitment to land conservation and trail management.

“When I look back at this, I should have asked for the permits at the very start when we decided to sign an agreement with the state and started to work together,” Mr. Moore said. “We were working with trusted partners . . . but when I look back on it, that was a mistake that I admit and apologize for.”

Speaking to the Gazette by phone Wednesday, Sheriff’s Meadow board president Peter Getsinger added his own remarks.

“What has happened in the state forest is upsetting,” Mr. Getsinger said. “And I think we are all, as a board and an organization . . . wanting to redress the situation that has occurred, and to continue in our role as Martha’s Vineyard’s land conservation agency.”

Mr. Getsinger also said Mr. Moore had the full trust of his board, and that his primary goal was ensuring the Vineyard community could maintain its trust in Sheriff’s Meadow.

“We have continually tried to work with DCR and Natural Heritage to try to redress the wrongs that have been done, because . . . really without trust, we don’t exist,” he said.

At the meeting last Thursday, DCR officials said the state had never received a written request from Mr. Bruno or anyone else to conduct the trail clearing, and that written approval was never formally granted.

“We have no documentation to that effect,” said Eric Seaborn. “There’s really no way to know factually one way or the other.”

But Mr. Moore said if Sheriff’s Meadow had known the trail work was not permitted, the conservation organization would have never gotten involved. He said it did not become clear to him until the spring of 2020 that the trail clearing had not received approval from DCR and the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. After it did become clear, he said a report was submitted to Natural Heritage that described the scope of the work. Mitigation planning began at the state level, which eventually led to last week’s announcement that the state would close the trails.

But the damage had been done.

“We want to work hard to restore trust in Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation,” Mr. Moore said. “And we’ll do whatever is necessary to do that. We take it very seriously.”

According to Mr. Moore, the 2018 stewardship agreement with the state forest came amid a variety of other contemporaneous developments for the foundation, which was begun by former Gazette editor Henry Beetle Hough in the 1950s and has since grown into one of the Island’s leading land trusts, holding nearly 3,000 acres in conservation that span the Vineyard, from Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary to Quansoo Farm.

In 2017, Sheriff’s Meadow launched a strategic plan that included a goal of improving trail connectivity across the Island, Mr. Moore and Mr. Getsinger said. Part of that plan included the launch of the popular MV Trails App, which includes an interactive map of every walking, hiking or biking trail on the Vineyard.

At the same time, the state forest, a large wilderness located in the middle of the Island and criss-crossed by fire lanes, was facing challenges.

Severely short-staffed and low on funding and equipment, the forest management had seen turnover since the death of longtime superintendent John Varkonda. Mr. Bruno was the only full-time employee, and the state, citing legal reasons, did not allow him to live in a house on the property. Difficulties in finding and hiring seasonal labor were a constant thread in weekly reports from Mr. Bruno to DCR, records show.

“We have a great need for help here at Correllus,” Mr. Bruno wrote to south regional director Karl Pastore in the summer of 2019.

Meanwhile, Sheriff’s Meadow had stepped in to offer a hand, on a strictly volunteer basis.

After a spate of particularly vicious northeast storms in March 2018, Mr. Berwind provided equipment and assisted Mr. Bruno in milling dozens of trees that had fallen on state forest trails between 2018 and 2019, according to Mr. Moore and others familiar with the events. The trees were going to be used for a pavilion, designed by the high school; the Gazette ran a short story about the project.

In April 2018, with the stewardship agreement in place, Sheriff’s Meadow offered Mr. Bruno a tractor and volunteers to help with maintenance. The foundation had also begun a program where it placed wooden benches in the forest, and organized successful volunteer work days with a friends group.

Nearly a year later, in March 2019, Mr. Moore wrote a letter to DCR commissioner Leo Roy requesting a more formal, long-term partnership between Sheriff’s Meadow and DCR in the state forest. In the letter, he said Sheriff’s Meadow was interested in expanding the state’s centrally-located garage for winter equipment storage. As part of the agreement, Mr. Moore offered, Sheriff’s Meadow would maintain and monitor trails, help with forestry and catalog endangered species. The state replied with a thank you letter, Mr. Moore said.

“It’s something that we were excited about, and hoped that this could turn into a good relationship for both organizations, and the community,” he recalled Wednesday.

The formal partnership never materialized.

The Sheriff’s Meadow project narrative shows that work began in the southern forest later that spring and continued through 2019, occurring alongside permitted work to restore, trim, mow and maintain existing trails. Mr. Moore said Sheriff’s Meadow was open about the work throughout the process, pointing by example to the September 2019 newsletter announcement, and was operating under the belief it had been approved.

But Mr. Moore confirmed that he never saw official permits, and reiterated that Sheriff’s Meadow was working with trusted partners.

“We had permission from DCR to do work in the forest on trails,” he said. “We had a good relationship with DCR and didn’t have any indication of a problem, up until more recently.”

Tom Robinson, a Sheriff’s Meadow board member and chairman of the Tisbury conservation commission who helped with some of the trail cutting in January 2019, offered a similar account. He said Mr. Bruno had helped Mr. Berwind brush cut roots in the southern forest, and Mr. Robinson was under the belief the superintendent had received encouragement from his superiors at DCR about the trail creation.

“Chris was all gung-ho about this,” Mr. Robinson said. “It was in the back of my mind, that this was too good to be true. But the reality, historically, is that [the state forest] is like the forgotten child of DCR . . . for them to say that Sheriff’s Meadow did this all in a vacuum, is somewhat disingenuous on DCR’s part.”

Tim Simmons, a restoration ecologist who was executive director of Sheriff’s Meadow in the 1980s and later worked for the state Natural Heritage program, told the Gazette in an interview that he came to the Island in late 2019 as part of an unrelated project and was told by Mr. Bruno about the trail clearing.

“It was sort of offhand,” Mr. Simmons said. “Somebody mentioned that Sheriff’s Meadow was cutting trails. And I said, Chris, what are you talking about? Who’s reviewing these trails? He said nobody is reviewing the trails, they are just cutting them. And I go, what is this?”

Several months later Mr. Bruno had left his job and the Island. “I was surprised when he left,” Mr. Robinson said. “But the reality was he wasn’t getting paid much. He was living on Chappy. His wife went back to school . . . it may have been coincidence, or it may have been cause and effect. I don’t know.”

Mr. Simmons expressed frustration that it took the state as long as it did to close the trails. Like Mr. Robinson, he pointed to the state’s lack of interest in the forest as a primary factor that led to the unintended violations.

“Here’s one of the most significant and neglected places in the state. Without presence, these things are going to happen. And clearly this time, even with presence, these things are going to happen,” he said. “Maybe they just failed to give Chris the appropriate training. I don’t know.”

Mr. Moore said he plans to meet with the state next Tuesday to discuss the mitigation plan. He said there no price estimate yet for the restoration, which he said will involve a combination of active monitoring and work to ensure the trails are closed to the public. Mr. Moore said over time, the trails will become overgrown, and will need to be monitored for invasive species.

The state decision to close the trails has carved its own divisions through the Vineyard’s conservation and recreation community, with debate over the severity of the violations and whether there is a need to shut down the trails now that they exist. The trails have become popular among some members of the Island mountain biking community.

Reflecting on the past months, Mr. Moore agreed that ultimately the main problem likely came down to miscommunication, and what he called a “gray area” between lines of authority.

“Those are things that need to be fixed,” Mr. Moore said. “We’re all part of this community here . . . and at the heart of it is a beautiful, 5,000-acre forest. And it’s important to everyone who is here. And it’s very important to Sheriff’s Meadow. And it’s very important to Sheriff’s Meadow to correct the errors we made, and to make sure they don’t happen again.”

Mr. Robinson added that he hoped the forest was important for one other stakeholder as well: the state.

“If anything good comes out of this, maybe they’ll pay a little more attention to their forest down here,” he said.