Capping a protracted, year-long review process, Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation and the state Department of Conservation and Recreation have finalized an agreement to close and restore more than 25 miles of trails that were illegally cut over the course of two years in the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest.

Announced in a press release from DCR that went out Monday, the final restoration plan comes almost exactly one year after the state Natural Heritage Program sent SMF board member Michael Berwind a noncompliance letter for the trail cutting work, which began in 2018 and was done without proper state permitting or review.

The trails cut through more than 32 acres of priority pitch pine and scrub oak growth that span the reaches of the 5,000-acre state forest, according to state DCR officials and a project narrative created by Sheriff’s Meadow in the aftermath of the citation. Trails were illegally cut through priority habitat for buck moths, migrating warblers, eastern whippoorwills and other rare or endangered species.

After months of investigation and analysis from both Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation staff and DCR, a public information session regarding the plan and two weeks of public comment, the two sides have now formally agreed to close most of the 25 miles of trails and restore them to their natural habitat. They have also signed a legally-binding 14-page memorandum of understanding regarding the restoration work that runs until May 2026.

The five-year restoration plan also looks to close 3.5 miles of preexisting trails that the state determined to be poorly sited. An additional 4.5 miles of illegally cut trails will remain open under the restoration plan to enhance connectivity, pending a retroactive permitting process with Natural Heritage, according to DCR and SMF.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation executive director Adam Moore expressed enthusiasm about the outcome after more than a year of back and forth with the state.

“I’m very pleased to have reached this agreement,” Mr. Moore said. “We are working with valued partners at DCR and at Natural Heritage and we’ve enjoyed a good working relationship together, even while trying to resolve this difficult issue,” he said.

In the press release, DCR commissioner Jim Montgomery was even more exuberant. “DCR is thrilled to begin restoration work of the forest’s trail system in partnership with the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation,” he said.

According to a copy of the agreement provided to the Gazette, the work will be done jointly by Sheriff’s Meadow staff and DCR, with a goal of restoring portions the unauthorized trails as closely to their prior condition as possible. Specifically, 90 per cent of native vegetative cover must be restored to the trail areas and there must be observable evidence of no recreational use on the trails at least one year after their closure, as spelled out in the agreement.

The entire restoration process is expected to take about five years, with work due to begin next week with the installation of closure signs on trails. Mr. Moore said the bulk of the work will take place this summer.

Sheriff’s Meadow is awaiting a final return of a compliance letter from Natural Heritage before beginning work. “I’m expecting it any time now,” Mr. Moore said.

According to the agreement, Sheriff’s Meadow is responsible for the cost of the trail restoration and monitoring program. Mr. Moore declined to provide an exact cost estimate, but said it would take approximately 400 hours of staff time this year.

The process will include both passive and active restoration techniques, according to the plan. A small number of the trails were created with minimal or no soil and root stock disturbance and will be left to regrow, while others will require more involved restoration efforts, including soil scouring, seeding and brushing in with native plants.

“There’s some [trails] that we think will just naturally regrow, there wasn’t much disturbance or impact to the ground. There are others where it might need a little bit more work and those require raking a certain amount of the trail and then covering it up with a duff layer,” said Mr. Moore.

Trails to be passively restored include Bermuda and Reverie in the forest’s western area, 3 Loops in the central forest and Aviator and Zip Tie in the eastern area. Trails requiring active restoration will include Sidewinder, Gateway and Fantasy in the western area, Tranquility Derailleur and Barn Owl in the center and Twisty, Explorer, Logjam and Tunnel in the eastern area.

Portions of the Twisty trail in the northeastern section of the forest and Fantasy in the central and western forest will

remain open, while DCR plans to close a redundant portion of previously sited trail in the northern section of the forest.

“The restoration process is going to be work on the ground, posting closure signs on trails that will be closed. And restoration activities, which would be putting brush and duff on the trail so that the first 25 feet of a trail are blocked,” said Mr. Moore.

He said SMF has begun an invasive species monitoring program in the forest as well.

Sheriff’s Meadow, DCR and Natural Heritage are required under the agreement to meet once a year on site to review progress throughout the restoration process, the agreement says, and Sheriff’s Meadow and DCR will produce a progress report for Natural Heritage at the close of each year.

After restoration, SMF will be required to monitor trails no less than once a month, the agreement states. Natural Heritage will also retain the right to extend the restoration and monitoring activities up to five years past the initially mandated five-year period.

SMF board members will not be involved in the restoration or monitoring work, Mr. Moore said. “It’s going to be just staff members,” he said.

In 2018, Sheriff’s Meadow entered into a voluntary stewardship agreement in the Correllus forest that was centered mainly around assistance with trail-related activities.

But in the spring of 2020, the state Natural Heritage Program was made aware of an unpermitted trail cutting program led by Mr. Berwind. The letter of non-compliance followed on June 11, 2020, requiring all trail work to cease immediately.

Mr. Berwind resigned from the SMF board in October 2020, according to Mr. Moore. No civil or criminal penalties were issued for the MESA violations.

More than 90 per cent of the state forest is home to priority species habitat, making it one of the most biodiverse forests in the state.

A comprehensive review process of the trail network has been underway since the citation last summer, including a public meeting hosted by DCR to announce the finding of its review. The final restoration plan has been adapted to reflect public comment, the press release said.

A spokesman for DCR was not immediately available for comment this week.

The restoration plan went into effect June 14, according to the release. The MOA between the two agencies was signed on June 3.

According to Mr. Moore, no signs have been installed yet on the closed trails, although they were removed from the state trails map and the TrailsMV app.

“If [the state] says they’re closed, they’re closed. But what we’re talking about is not just saying they’re closed in writing. It’s doing some physical work to keep them that way, and to help them to regrow where DCR wants to close them,” said Mr. Moore.