Work began on the fire breaks in the Manuel F. Corellus State Forest this week, with the blessing of the state attorney general but over the protests of a watchdog group which promises to seek a court injunction today.

On Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, a bulldozer rolled into the forest's northern margins and began flattening the vegetation, widening the fire break to 200 feet. The Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the state agency in charge of managing the forest, plans to widen the eight miles of exterior breaks to 500 feet. From the edge of the forest, 200 feet will be bulldozed or harrowed. DEM will mow and cut trees to clear the remaining 300 feet.

DEM began the work without any review of its management under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). The act requires any state agency to file an Environmental Notification Form and listen to public comment for 30 days afterwards. After the 30 days, a final management plan is drafted for approval.

DEM said the threat to public safety called for emergency action. The agency did file for an ENF last Friday, but said it will continue with the work during the 30-day comment period.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an alliance of state employees working together to promote professional ethics, objected in a letter to state Attorney General Tom Reilly. The letter asked the attorney general to stop DEM's work on the forest. General Counsel for PEER, Dan Meyer, said, "Not only is the state proceeding contrary to Massachusetts law, but the very ‘emergency orders' issued to circumvent the MEPA are unlawful."

PEER cited the MEPA regulation that states: "Any project implemented or undertaken to deal with future emergencies, or periodic recurrence of an emergency condition, shall not be considered an emergency action."

The field director for PEER, Eric Wingerter, said there would have to be an actual fire, not merely a threat, for DEM to proceed under the state's emergency provisions.

Mr. Meyer said, "No fire is currently threatening public health or safety in the state forest. DEM's emergency action is in violation of Massachusetts law and must be voided."

But the attorney general disagreed with PEER's argument, saying the threat of fire to homes abutting the forest is serious.

"State law allows work to go forward without prior MEPA compliance in the event that emergency action ‘is essential to avoid or eliminate a threat to public health or safety,'' " said assistant attorney general James Milkey, citing state law.

The fire chiefs from each of the six Island towns have sent letters in support of DEM's management plan for the exterior breaks in the forest. The attorney general said the fire chiefs are in agreement with DEM officials and with Bob Durand, secretary of the executive office of environmental affairs, who "believe the work along the perimeter is needed to address a serious fire hazard." Thus, the attorney general will not order DEM to stop the work.

One method DEM will use in the exterior breaks is harrowing. Critics of this plan say DEM has misled the public about the damaging effects the machine will have on the environment. DEM said the harrow will not be used within 200 feet of a state-listed rare plant. The rare plants in the exterior forest were flagged by two Island botanists within a two-week time span.

Mr. Wingerter said allowing such little time to flag the rare plant species was an inadequate procedure. "DEM just doesn't know where the rare plant species are," he said.

Spokesman for secretary Durand, Doug Pizzi, said, "The secretary has always wanted a project that would minimize the fire risk to people and property while doing so in an environmentally safe way." The secretary and DEM believe the plan will protect the 29 rare species in the state forest, while also protecting Island homes.

The PEER group maintains that DEM has moved forward with a management plan without a proper review of alternative methods. And some scientists involved with the forest have found fault with DEM's plan. David Foster and Glenn Motzkin, of the Harvard Forest and Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, conducted a study of the forest in 1999. Mr. Motzkin and Mr. Foster oppose many of DEM's methods for managing the forest and said, "The plan ignores much less intrusive and environmentally sound alternatives, is not supported by any independent published studies or documentation, and is not based on a written management plan that incorporates long-term monitoring and evaluation."

By the end of the 1990s, a second state agency had taken interest in the forest - the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW), a state agency that keeps track of the rare plant and animal species throughout the state. For several years, DFW objected to DEM's management plan for the forest and the use of the harrow. On August 21, DFW issued DEM a permit to widen the 32 miles of fire breaks in the state forest.

DFW director Wayne MacCallum said the permit was issued to address the wildfire risk. Mr. MacCallum said many aspects of DEM's plan are considered research projects. DEM will monitor the effects of its activity in the forest, including the results of the harrow.

Many scientists fault the conditions of the permit. Particularly, DEM is not required to draft a complete management plan of the forest until Jan. 1, 2002.

Mr. Meyer said, "By working from the Harvard study, the MEPA review could properly - and lawfully - assess the needs of the 29 endangered species. That review could also assess the opportunity to remove the invasive, non-native plants introduced by the state through past misguided efforts."

In response to PEER's objections to the methods DEM will use when widening the fire breaks, Mr. Milkey said, "Secretary Durand is requiring that the fire break work in the interior portions of the forest be reviewed under MEPA before it is undertaken. We urge you to voice any substantive concerns you may have about the work in the MEPA process."

PEER wants all work in the forest stopped until alternative methods are considered, the public has a chance to respond and a clear management plan is drafted. Mr. Meyer said, "After years of ignoring requests to address the buildup of fuels on the Forest, DEM cannot remedy its past negligence by declaring an emergency."