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State outlines forest management plans
John Varkonda, state forest superintendent, stands at the edge of a large frost bottom that was recently restored in the forest. Photo by Ezra Blair
State officials visiting the Island last week said that fire prevention and habitat restoration are the top priorities for the future of the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest. Officials with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), and the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, held a public meeting on Sept. 21 to discuss the ongoing work in the state forest. The meeting was followed by a fieldtrip through the 5,100-acre property.
DCR, a newly formed state agency, began work in the state forest shortly after it assumed control of the property two years ago. The first step of the multi-phase project addressed the threat of fire. This summer, John Varkonda, state forest superintendent, completed a project to widen the fire lanes in the forest to provide adequate emergency access, and to expand the fuel breaks, which act as natural fire barriers. Mr. Varkonda also began thinning areas of the nonnative pitch pines that could fuel a crown fire.
Mr. Varkonda and state workers also began habitat restoration. One of the most significant areas was a huge frost bottom on the western side of the forest, where non-native pines were removed. The result is a dramatic landscape of low-lying scrub oak with visibility in all directions for more than a mile.
"It's a pretty drastic change, and a great improvement in terms of habitat," said Mr. Varkonda as he stood at the brink of the frost bottom during last week's tour of the forest.
State officials said the work that has been completed so far is just one first step in a multi-phase project. Still to come are more controlled burns and efforts to reduce the non-native white and red pine trees, many of which are diseased and dying.
James Rassman, state forest manager for the southeastern district, said that the pines were planted during previous conservation efforts beginning in 1925. Originally, the state had planned to produce lumber from the pine plantations, but with no clear management, the trees remained uncut, and over the years they began to compete for space with the smaller, native species, including the scrub oak.
"[The pines] were originally planted for timber, but that is a business we want to get out of," said Mr. Rassman as he stood in a meadow in front of a plantation of shabby, weather-beaten white pines. Getting rid of the pines is no small undertaking. State officials said that the number of trees, and the cost of transporting them off- Island, makes it a daunting task. "Getting the lumber off-Island is the problem, and when you look at using it on-Island, it becomes and issue of volume," said Mr. Rassman. "You're talking about two million board-feet of timber, and it's relatively low quality."
James DiMaio, DCR chief forester, said the state is open to suggestions. "We're open to ideas, and we're willing to work with the community on this," he said. State officials said that Islanders have come to them with numerous proposals over the years for removing and utilizing the pine trees, but none of the plans ever get off the ground.
"No one ever calls back," said Mr. Varkonda. "What sounded like a great idea never materializes, and it is usually because of the volume we are talking about." State officials said that along with creating additional fire dangers, the pine trees threaten the health of the native species in the forest.
Mr. Rassman likened the pine plantations to planting banana trees in the state forest. "There is biodiversity, and there is native biodiversity," he said.
Tim Simmons, a restoration ecologist with the natural heritage program, said that most people do not realize the extent of the native biodiversity in the state forest. He said that the forest contains the highest concentration of rare species in the state.
Supporting a message that was continually repeated by other state officials, Mr. Simmons said that the forest also presents a significant wildfire danger. He said that protecting the rare species and reducing the fire danger could be accomplished by the same method — controlled burning. Mr. Simmons said that 30 percent of the plants and animals in the state forest would actually benefit from more frequent fires.
Fighting fire with fire was a plan repeated throughout the state officials' two-day visit to the Island. Joel Carlson, DCR chief fire control warden and a "burn boss," said that controlled burns are the most efficient and cost effective way to reduce fuels in the forest. He said prescribed burns would cost between $600 and $800 per acre. Other fuel removal treatments cost as much as $1,900 per acre, he said.
Mr. Carlson said that one of the state's goals is to change the public's perception of controlled fires. He said that "one day of smoke" is a small inconvenience compared to the devastation of a wildfire.