A comprehensive review of correspondence between the state Department of Conservation and Recreation and staff and board members of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation shows all were closely involved with an aggressive trail cutting project in the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest from its inception in 2018.

The project, which carved more than 25 miles of new single-track trails through the 5,000-acre state forest — including 32 acres of priority endangered species habitat — never received permits from the DCR or the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.

In June 2020 Natural Heritage issued an order of noncompliance to Sheriff’s Meadow board member Michael Berwind, halting work on the project, about two years after the trail cutting began.

In a plan announced early this summer, Sheriff’s Meadow and DCR have since agreed to a five-year restoration and monitoring plan that will close the majority of the trails to the public.

Sheriff’s Meadow is a nonprofit, Island-based land trust that owns a number of properties on Martha’s Vineyard, including Cedar Tree Neck and Quansoo Farm. The state Department of Conservation and Recreation owns and manages the state forest.

In March of this year, the Vineyard Gazette filed a records request with the DCR to ascertain exactly how the project unfolded. Nearly 500 pages of documents provided by the state include hundreds of emails between and among state forest superintendent Chris Bruno, Sheriff’s Meadow executive director Adam Moore, Mr. Berwind and various DCR officials.

Citing an exemption under the state public records law, DCR declined to provide internal emails among its staff regarding the trail work and its aftermath. As a result, it is unclear exactly to what extent state environmental officials were aware of the project.

A comprehensive review of the emails shows that Mr. Berwind, an avid mountain biker and board member, played a leading role in the effort to create an extensive trail system in the state forest, but that he was not acting unilaterally.

Spearheading the work, often with great panache, Mr. Berwind relentlessly campaigned for a continuous single-track trail system. But both Mr. Bruno and Mr. Moore approved, and at times encouraged the work by Mr. Berwind, as well as other volunteers, even though there were no permits in hand.

Four months after Natural Heritage halted work on the trails, Mr. Berwind resigned from the Sheriff’s Meadow board. Emails provided by the state show that he remained involved in the remediation process well into 2021.

In Sheriff’s Meadow’s early summer newsletter that went out recently, Mr. Moore wrote a lengthy statement of explanation and apology about the trail cutting project. It marked the first formal statement from Sheriff’s Meadow since the problems became known publicly a year ago.

“Had we understood that our work was not properly permitted, we would not have undertaken it,” Mr. Moore wrote in part.

Mr. Bruno did not respond to a request for comment from the Gazette. Contacted by email, Mr. Berwind declined to comment.

Emails provided by the state show that as early as 2017, Mr. Bruno had reached out to Paul Jahnige, the director of trails for DCR, inquiring about a partnership with Sheriff’s Meadow for “trail reclamation work” in the state forest.

“I have a willing partner organization that is offering to assist in the process and implementation if and when approved,” Mr. Bruno wrote Mr. Jahnige in October 2017, referring to Sheriff’s Meadow. “Could you send me the criteria needed to begin the process.”

Mr. Jahnige replied by attaching the current trails map for the state forest as well as DCR’s trail proposal form. He also informed Mr. Bruno of the Natural Heritage review process.

But that process apparently never took place, even as trails were blazed through the state forest in 2018 and 2019, using heavy machinery. The trails quickly became popular among the Island mountain biking community.

The work was almost entirely led by Mr. Berwind, who served as head of the Sheriff’s Meadow trails committee. In lengthy notes to Mr. Bruno, with Mr. Moore and sometimes other Sheriff’s Meadow board members copied in, Mr. Berwind chronicled the trail cutting project in exhaustive detail.

“What have the forest elves been up to you ask?” Mr. Berwind wrote to Mr. Bruno, Mr. Moore and other Sheriff’s Meadow members in a progress report on Jan. 5, 2019, going on to detail the trail work from the previous year. “I believe Sheriff’s Meadow and DCR worked extremely well together this year,” Mr. Berwind wrote. “As a result, the single track trail connectivity through the forest should be significantly improved by the end of 2019.”

After another update from Mr. Berwind on April 1, 2019, Mr. Moore offered his approval.

“I thank you and your hard-working crew for your efforts helping the state forest,” Mr. Moore wrote to Mr. Berwind.

Mr. Bruno offered similar encouragement.

“We are coming to a great position in our trail program and commend all of the efforts in making this possible to everyone involved, something we can all be proud of in our forest,” he wrote a day later.

Emails show that Mr. Berwind took Mr. Moore and Mr. Bruno on electric bike rides through the state forest, showing them the work and potential new trail locations. He pushed for Sheriff’s Meadow to direct resources to the project, including the purchase of a Toro Dingo trail cutting machine, and asked that a newly-hired land steward report directly to him three times a week.

Sheriff’s Meadow bought the machine later in 2019, paid for by a donation from a board member.

By May 2019, Mr. Moore had made progress on inking a volunteer stewardship agreement between Sheriff’s Meadow and the state. In an email to Mr. Bruno, he updated the superintendent about a meeting he had with senior DCR officials Karl Pastore and Leo Roy. And for the first time in a long-running email correspondence about the trails that had begun more than a year earlier, Mr. Moore inquired about permits for state forest trails.

“I am going to follow up on . . . a cooperative agreement for us,” Mr. Moore wrote to Mr. Bruno. “In the meantime, can you please provide me with a map of where you want Sheriff’s Meadow to create trails, maintain trails, and to restore trails, and can you please provide me with any NHESP approval paperwork that you have, if needed?”

Mr. Bruno replied: “I will get these to you as soon as I can for your reference.”

Mr. Moore never followed up in writing about the permits, and Mr. Bruno never provided them, according to the emails.

Work continued on the trail clearing project through 2020.

In a phone interview this week, Mr. Moore said he did follow up verbally with Mr. Bruno multiple times. He acknowledged that it was a serious mistake that he never pushed further in writing, and that work continued in the forest despite the lack of permits. He said senior DCR officials who were familiar with the project had expressed no concern during the 2019 meeting about permitting, even after Sheriff’s Meadow received a grant to install benches on some of the trails.

“I did follow up verbally several times. Certainly, I should have followed up with an email . . . that was a mistake,” Mr. Moore said. “We were working with a trusted partner.”

Emails show that at least one DCR official, Mr. Jahnige, had some familiarity with the trail cutting prior to the citation in June 2020, contradicting the state’s timeline of events, which said senior DCR officials only became aware of the lack of permits in April 2020.

But on Jan. 7, 2020, Mr. Jahnige wrote to another DCR employee: “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 ever got trail proposal forms on any of them), or there might or might not be illegally built trails. In any case . . . given the priority habitat issues at the forest, we may need to discuss some NHESP process as well.”

No additional mention of permits was made via email until February 2020, when Sheriff’s Meadow ecologist Kristen Geagan became involved in the project.

“Adam has asked that I supervise the SMF crews DCR projects and make sure that they are consistent with DCR plans and NHESP permits,” Ms. Geagan wrote to Mr. Bruno on Feb. 20 that year.

The trail work continued through March. At one point Ms. Geagan emphasized that a re-route of one trail out of a frost bottom had not been approved.

“As I feared [Mr. Berwind] misinterpreted your email to give him carte blanche on trail maintenance,” she wrote to Mr. Bruno on March 6.

Mr. Bruno continued to praise the project.

“Great work continues being done in the forest,” he wrote to Mr. Moore on March 26.

On the same day, Ms. Geagan wrote a follow-up email to Mr. Bruno with an attached spreadsheet, requesting the DEP and Natural Heritage permit numbers for every trail worked on by Sheriff’s Meadow board members and staff.

There was no reply. Mr. Bruno left his position as forest superintendent a short time later (the state has not confirmed the actual date of his resignation).

On May 19, 2020, Mr. Jahnige sent Mr. Moore an email asking to talk about “significant recent illegal trail building.”

The two spoke on the phone, and Mr. Moore provided Mr. Berwind’s contact information, emails show.

On June 10, 2020, Natural Heritage issued the citation, requiring work to stop.

Emails show that Mr. Berwind remained actively involved, corresponding frequently with DCR staff about the trails.

On July 6, 2020, he wrote to Mr.Jahnige to say he had re-routed a 100-yard section of one trail out of a “sensitive frost bottom” in mid-March at the request of Mr. Bruno, who, according to Mr. Berwind, “was concerned about Natural Heritage.”

Later, on Sept. 11, 2020, Mr. Berwind wrote a lengthy email to Mr. Jahnige, advocating strongly to keep the trails open and criticizing SMF staff.

“If the DCR has other priorities and/or Sheriff’s Meadow is unwilling to commit the necessary resources to reroute trails around sensitive habitat areas, I am confident — under the direction of DCR — I can be part of or even lead a volunteer work team to get the job done,” Mr. Berwind wrote to Mr. Jahnige.

According to Mr. Moore, Mr. Berwind was asked to resign from the Sheriff’s Meadow board in October 2020.

From July 2020 on, DCR received dozens of emails from members of the Island conservation community and other state forest users, decrying the trail cutting.

Meanwhile, Mr. Berwind, who was no longer on the Sheriff’s Meadow board, continued to press officials to keep the trails in use. On March 1 of this year, just before a March 4 DCR public information session about the illegal trail cutting, Mr. Berwind sent an email to DCR staffer Eric Seaborn, saying he had been asked by Mr.Jahnige to go “radio silent” and “refuse media comments.” Mr. Jahnige said Mr. Seaborn had taken over for him to lead the remediation process, according to emails.

“I have approvals and go-aheads from DCR employees for all the volunteer and Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation work performed,” Mr. Berwind wrote to Mr. Seaborn.

He also wrote: “Paul [Jahnige] has done an excellent job attempting to calm the local waters. While doing so, he asked me to remain out of sight on the sidelines . . . My hope has been — and continues to be — given everything going on in the world today, DCR/[Natural Heritage] will come to the conclusion the existing single track trail system is a material benefit to an Island population.”

At the public information session three days later, DCR announced that nearly all the trails would be closed to the public, and that Sheriff’s Meadow would be responsible for a five-year restoration and monitoring program.