State Forest Gets Help

The Department of Environmental Management's Division of Forests and Parks has begun to implement a new management plan for the 5,000-acre Manuel F. Correllus State Forest.

Concerned about the risk of forest fires, DEM, the state agency responsible for managing the forest, has focused its energies on clearing firebreaks or "safe zones" on the land's perimeter and interior, a plan discussed for several years. Lack of funding and concern from another state agency delayed the maintenance.

By the end of the 1990s, a second state agency had taken interest in the forest, the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife - more specifically, a division of this department known as the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, which keeps track of rare plants and animal species throughout the state. Natural Heritage had the funds necessary to help manage the forest, but disagreed with some of the measures that DEM would take.

Bob Durand, secretary of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, arrived at the state forest Friday afternoon, climbed into a bulldozer and began to widen a perimeter firebreak. His action signified the start of a preliminary action plan for the forest.

"We have a real issue here," Secretary Durand said. "How do we manage the wildfire on one hand, while at the same time taking into consideration the tremendous diversity that exists here? From an ecological aspect, this is the fourth-largest state-owned property significant from an endangered or rare species diversity standpoint."

Said Mr. Durand: "I think this year we have reached a consensus. The directors of the two agencies have been meeting with me on a regular basis to try to come up with a compromise that would both get us to the point where we can protect the citizens of the Vineyard and at the same time manage this land for bio-diversity, recognizing that 29 rare and threatened species exist here like the northern harrier hawk, the spotted turtle and the imperial moth." Other rare species in the forest include the coastal barrens buck moth, purple needle grass, sand plain flax and bushy rockrose.

The first part of the plan calls for clearing and widening many of the existing 31 miles of firebreaks. DEM will widen the exterior firebreaks, which help protect nearby residences, to 500 feet, and interior "safety zones" will be widened to 100 feet.

Todd Frederick, director of forest and parks for the state, said discussions with Natural Heritage focused around what methods should be used for management of the forest. The two agencies agreed mechanical removal on the exterior, including the use of a harrow, would be okay, while a variety of methods would be used on the interior. The interior clearing will be monitored and documented closely with open communication between the two agencies as they plan for the future.

In previous years, Natural Heritage objected to the use of a harrow, citing a 1999 Harvard study conducted by David R. Foster and Glem Motzkin of Harvard Forest of Harvard University, entitled Historical Influences on the Landscape of Martha's Vineyard: Perspectives on the Management of the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest. The study was designed to help stewards of the forest understand the ecological history of the forest and great plain, and to propose ways to manage the forest now and in the future.

In general, the study recommended methods to reduce the hazard of wildfire, stop and reverse the encroachment of the planted trees, and encourage the growth of native plants and animals in the forest.

Mowing and burning the interior firebreaks, removing trees that were beginning to overspread indigenous plants and taking down trees already overgrown and crowding out native plants were measures the study sanctioned.

Natural Heritage referred to a part of the study that stated harrowing encourages weedy species to move in where the soil has been turned. But independent scientists said harrowing a few firebreaks would do no lasting damage to the biology as a whole, because it involved so little land, and because only a few sections would be harrowed at a time. The scientists noted broad areas of agreement between the agencies, and recommended compromise for the sake of fire safety in the state forest.

Natural Heritage has now agreed to allow harrowing on the exterior breaks and some on the interior. DEM has used harrowing in the past, and its officials believe the method ensures firebreaks remain open for the longest possible stretch of time. Mr. Frederick said, "Harrowing will be limited on the interior breaks and not used exclusively." In other words, less intrusive measures of clearing the breaks will be used in areas where endangered species exist.

DEM has argued consistently that the threat of wildfire to people and property must be its first priority and has insisted that before Natural Heritage takes steps to implement the broad long-term recommendations of the Harvard plan, it first must use its resources to rehabilitate the firebreaks to provide safe access for firefighters deep inside the forest in the event of a fire.

"Once we start getting the breaks in place," said Mr. Frederick, "we can start to do a lot of the types of removal that The Nature Conservancy does. We can start with the controlled burns in the inner pockets and restore the area back to what it was like before colonial settlement and protect the native species."

Meanwhile, DEM is also considering a variety of methods to reduce fuel on the forest floor. One method may be the use of 200 to 400 sheep, whose grazing can significantly cut down the fuel levels.

DEM has a new source of funding and is developing a management plan that incorporates many recommendations of the Harvard plan as the clearing process continues.

Initial funds for the clearing will come in part from a two-year $423,600 grant, effective on July 1, from the U.S. Forest Service and designated for "Wildland Urban Interface Fuels Management, Southeastern Massachusetts." Mr. Frederick said the clearing work is progressing slowly now, "but we'll pick up the pace in July after we draw on the fund." Other sources of revenue will come from the state or federal level. Two weeks ago, Governor Jane Swift proposed a $750 million environmental bond bill, of which $5 million would go to the DEM specifically for projects like this one, said Mr. Frederick.

A year-round outreach forest fire patrolman will be funded for the Islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. The patrolman will work with neighborhoods and inform residents regularly about what is going on. An advisory committee of some type will be developed to keep the Island educated about the forest's management.

Wayne MacCallum, director of the division of fisheries and wildlife, said, "This property was acquired by the state in 1908 specifically for purposes of protecting the heath hen, a species now extinct. There would be 30 rare species here today if that species was not extinct. There are 29 species of plants, animals and vertebrates here. The assemblage of so many different species makes it one of the top areas we have in the state.

"We hope to accomplish here what will prevent people 50 years from now saying there are only 20 or 17 rare species here. We hope the technology we apply here and what we learn from this will be applied in future management and will ensure the perpetuation of those species, and perhaps even the enhancement or restoration of some of those species.

"I feel confident that we will develop the scientific framework to analyze the results of the research undertaken here. I hope 50 years from now when people come here and this area will have sustained the existing species, future generations will look back on what we have done today."

Mr. Durand acknowledged there was an internal struggle concerning the management of the forest, but the wrestling appears to have reached an end, at least in these initial stages of clearing the firebreaks. "Personally I am happy to be here because my in-laws live close by and I remember Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners when they would say, 'This is a threat, Bob. You have to do something here.' And from my son, Andrew, I heard, 'Dad, you have to protect the endangered species.' I get in my own family the dichotomy that exists in a public policy issue like this. It is something I try to provide leadership on, recognizing we have the two agencies. We have been able to reach a great compromise in a tough situation."