DCR to clear 110 acres of pines in State Forest

Dead red pines in the State Forest just off Airport Road are scheduled for removal. — Ralph Stewart

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) announced that work would begin next week to remove dead and dying red pines from about 110 acres of the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest.

The work is part of a three-year, 237-acre “emergency ecological restoration project,” said DCR spokesman Wendy Fox in a press release. The project is intended to restore native trees such as pitch pine and scrub oak and reduce wildfire risks and public safety hazards.

DCR is an agency of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs that oversees 450,000 acres of parks and forests, beaches, bike trails, watersheds, and dams, in addition to 278 bridges and miles of roadways.

The 5,100-acre State Forest is located in the geographical center of the Island. Another 117 acres will be addressed in fiscal years 2010 and 2011.

DCR recently awarded a contract to R.J. Cobb Land Clearing Inc. of Bellingham to remove the dead trees. The entire cost of the $240,000 contract will be funded through a U.S. Forest Service grant. The company will convert the wood to mulch for use on Martha’s Vineyard.

“The need to manage fuels and restore ecological conditions within the State Forest is important to the Commonwealth and to Martha’s Vineyard,” said DCR Commissioner Richard K. Sullivan Jr. “DCR has made much progress and we hope to continue making progress with the support of the Martha’s Vineyard community.”

The work is expected to take about two months. It will center on the State Forest headquarters building, disc golf course, bike trails and areas close to Martha’s Vineyard Airport. DCR’s Bureau of Forestry surveyed the red pines and determined which will be removed, based on public safety and potential wildfire risks. Not all the dead trees will be removed; areas where scattered dead trees pose minimal risk will not be affected, according to DCR.

The red pines found in the State Forest are not native to the Island. The pines were planted during previous conservation efforts, beginning in the 1930s. 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. In 2004, a disease known as Diplodia pinea infested the forest and killed more than 300 acres of red pine.

State and local officials have been concerned for years about the risk posed by falling trees and the build-up of fuel loads – dead and dying trees – that provide tinder for forest fires during periods of extreme drought.

In 2004, DCR began a project to widen 33 miles of fire roads in the State Forest to create a network of 100-foot-wide treeless breaks that would be wide enough to fight fires more safely by providing adequate maneuvering room for firefighting equipment. At the time many of the firebreaks, including most of the interior breaks, were only 20 to 40 feet wide.

Because the State Forest is considered priority habitat and is home to a number of rare species, the firebreak work required a permit from the state’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. The permit included a stipulation that the state would restore 213 acres of native scrub oak and pitch pine forests.

Natural Heritage has reviewed and approved the current project, including the implementation plan, which requires cleaning the contractor’s equipment to reduce the threat of non-native invasive species, according to a press release. The fire chiefs and Conservation Commissions of Edgartown and West Tisbury also have reviewed the projects.

The last significant fire in the State Forest was in July 1999, following an extended drought. The blaze consumed 20 acres of woods and smoldered for two days before surrendering to the efforts of more than 100 volunteer firefighters from all six Island towns, and the first steady rainfall of the summer.

In the spring of 1916, fire destroyed 12,000 acres from West Tisbury to Farm Neck and Ocean Heights in Edgartown. A 1,000-acre fire tore through the forest in 1930, and another in 1946 destroyed more than 5,000 acres from the head of Tisbury Great Pond to Edgartown and Oak Bluffs.