White pines out; pitch pines, scrub oaks are favored
Hoping to take advantage of an upswing in the lumber market, state forest management officials recently solicited bids for the removal of white pine trees from about 75 acres in the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest. Cutting down the trees is necessary, they say, for the ultimate goal of restoring approximately 200 acres of white pine tree plantations to native pitch pine and scrub oak habitat, which supports a wider diversity of plant, insect, and animal life.
"We are trying to sell the timber so it covers the cost of cutting. We hope to have this cost the towns and taxpayers nothing," said Vanessa Gulati, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) spokesperson.
Tom Robinson, owner of Island Timber, is not so sure. "I would be very skeptical that someone can cut trees down in the state forest for a profit without state funds being used," he said.
Towering white pines stand in a corridor, with young saplings filling in to form a gentle arch. Photo by Janet Hefler
John Varkonda, state forest supervisor, said that while the lumber market is good enough right now to make this possible, "the project is by no means a done deal." Contractors are going to have to do research to figure out a cost-effective way to remove the timber from the Island, he pointed out.
Mr. Robinson also questioned why Islanders were not given the opportunity to harvest the trees. Mr. Varkonda said while it would be possible for them to do some of it, "We grow more wood on the trees than they can take in a year."
Bids are due at DCR offices by 5 pm tomorrow. If none are received, the project will not go forward, Ms. Gulati said. This marks the fourth attempt in several years.
One of Mr. Robinson's objections to the cutting plan is that he feels the white pine plantations offer the only areas of deep woods to enjoy in the state forest. "The white pine has a lot of value in its own right. Even if it is not marketable, it has value esthetically," he said. "They have plenty of other areas in the forest they can restore to pitch pine and scrub oak habitat."
Jim Rassman, southeast district management forester, agrees that balancing habitat protection with recreational enjoyment is important. "Our plan is to conserve some white pines in the highly used recreational areas so people can continue to enjoy the 'look' of the tall white pines. We like keeping pines along the bike trail, for example. This is an ever-changing project, and we learn as we go along."
In deference to the public's concerns, Mr. Varkonda said, "We are trying to be cautious." Instead of selling 200 acres of white pine timber as originally proposed, the plan was scaled back to 75 acres, about 1.5 percent of the forest's total of 5,346 acres.
The white pines, a non-native species, were planted to provide a lumber industry on Martha's Vineyard that was unsuccessful. However, the trees for the most part flourished, adapting to the Island's environment and multiplying in great numbers. "Even if we decided not to deforest them, the white pines grow well and could take over the native forest many years from now," Mr. Varkonda said.
While many people would question why that is a bad thing, foresters and conservationists say the white pines do not provide the biodiversity needed to sustain the state forest's unique species. Unfortunately, the more unsightly scrub oaks and pitch pines do.
"Martha's Vineyard's state forest has the highest concentration of rare species anywhere in the Commonwealth supported by the scrub oak and pitch pine," said Mr. Rassman. "There is a whole host of rare species relying on them."
For example, the imperial moth, found only on Martha's Vineyard, uses pitch pine for its caterpillar food plant, said Matt Pelikan, Martha's Vineyard Program Manager for the Nature Conservancy. A lot of insects also are associated with scrub oaks, he said, particularly moths.
Although many Islanders will groan at the mention of moths, Mr. Pelikan said only about a half dozen of the 2,100 species found on Martha's Vineyard cause problems. Another 15 to 20 kinds are rare enough to warrant intense conservation efforts, he added.
While the Nature Conservancy does not see any particular ecological advantage in cutting down white pines, Mr. Pelikan said, the restoration plan has been in the works since he arrived on the Island in 1997. "I think everybody in the state DCR and the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program is looking to develop a management plan that will protect the biological resources and achieve the goal of public safety from fire."
White pines are particularly susceptible to damage from high winds and once they are on the ground they turn quickly into highly combustible fire fuel. "As forest manager, I'm trying to be proactive," said Mr. Varkonda. "It is just a matter of time before another good hurricane blows through here. We need to do the cutting while we can in a measured fashion."
A white pine's leaf mass acts as a big sail in a hurricane, he said. Walking through a white pine plantation reveals corridors of "blow-outs" where trees felled by Hurricane Bob remain, even after $50,000 was spent in cleanup costs.
Under the terms of a permit granted by the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, DCR is allowed to change habitat areas to create fire lanes, so long as natural habitat is restored elsewhere.
Removing non-native white pine trees and allowing indigenous trees and plants to naturally reforest the areas fulfills this requirement, Mr. Rassman explained. "We don't want a net loss. We want to protect public safety but are required by the terms of the permit to provide restoration," he said.