An evolving plan to manage and restore the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest is set for its first public airing tomorrow, when state environmental officials will come to the Vineyard to discuss efforts to alleviate fire danger in the forest and to undertake the largest ecological restoration project in the history of New England.
The meeting will offer Island residents their first opportunity to weigh in on the long-term goals for the 5,000-acre state forest that lies at the geographical and ecological heart of the Vineyard.
"We want to bring the public up to speed about the various projects at the state forest, as well as some of the future plans," Jim DiMario, chief forester in the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, said yesterday. "We really want folks to be comfortable with what we're doing, and want to listen to their concerns."
The presentation and public comment session will be held on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Fred B. Morgan Jr. meeting room at the Edgartown town hall. State officials will then lead a field trip into the forest on Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon, beginning at the administration office off Barnes Road, to tour the areas under discussion.
Longtime Island conservationist Robert Woodruff, who headed the Vineyard Conservation Society for more than a decade and also served as chairman of the state forest advisory committee, said he was pleased to hear about the meeting this week. When news of the restoration project first surfaced one year ago, Mr. Woodruff expressed some concerns and criticized state officials for not seeking Island comment.
"I think that it's responsible and expected of them to seek public input on this," Mr. Woodruff said yesterday. "Because Islanders are concerned. This is our resource, as well as the state's resource."
The Vineyard forest is a priority property for the state - both as an imminent fire threat and a critical ecological habitat.
According to the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, the forest contains the highest concentration of rare species in the state. Because so little of it was developed or tilled for agriculture, the contiguous oak woodland and scrub oak habitats have remained relatively undisturbed and became a haven for rare plants, beetles, moths and birds.
"It's huge for us - both in a state and regional aspect," Tim Simmons, restoration ecologist for the natural heritage program, said of the Vineyard state forest.
The forest also poses a huge fire hazard.
Pitch pines and scrub oak make southeastern Massachusetts the third most flammable region in the continental United States - outranked only by a part of New Jersey and the chaparral hills of California. And the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest is said to have the largest remaining tract of highly hazardous fuel in a Massachusetts state forest.
With extremely dry conditions during a prolonged summer drought, West Tisbury fire chief Manuel Estrella 3rd last month referred to the state forest as a time bomb.
"Fire concerns are very high. We've known for a while that the worst case scenario is pretty frightening," forest superintendent John Varkonda said yesterday. "But as some of our recent studies have shown, there are methods available to drastically reduce fire behavior."
Mr. Simmons noted that fire mitigation and protection of native species are not competing interests.
"I think they've demonstrated that this can be done in a way that's beneficial to all of the rare species out there," he said.
In the last few years Mr. Varkonda has overseen efforts to widen fire lanes in the forest, replace and repair buildings and equipment, remove some spruce trees and conduct controlled burns. State officials say the methods so far have proven successful, though the management efforts will be ongoing.
One plan to address both the habitat and fire concerns involves removing more than 500 acres of red and white pine trees that have been in the forest for as long as 80 years. The state planted the non-native pine trees beginning in 1925 to seed an Island lumber industry that, for different reasons, including a lack of management, never took root.
The densely packed pine plantations now represent 10 per cent of the entire forest, but, according to state officials, pose a fire threat and compete for space with smaller native species.
Almost exactly one year ago the state announced plans to move as quickly as possible to remove the pine plantations because their quality and health were declining rapidly, reducing the chance that a timber company would want them. After some Vineyard residents voiced concerns, state environmental officials said this winter that they would delay and likely change the plan for the pines.
The future of the pine plantations are expected to be a major focus of conversation tomorrow night.
With the rising cost of fuel, shipping lumber off-Island has become a less tenable option. However, a 10-year energy action plan released by the Vineyard Energy Project last month suggested that enough biomass could be sustainably harvested from the state forest every year to heat the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School.
Mr. Woodruff remains unconvinced about the need to remove the white pines.
"They've done some very good stuff in there, but I'm still very concerned," he said. "I want to promote the idea of retaining the white pine stands. Whether the state considers them native or not, I consider them native. And there should be some value in that."