Bob Woodruff: ‘We’ve got a lot of work to do’

Veteran conservationist works to strengthen appreciation of Correllus Forest.

Any conversation with Bob Woodruff guarantees you’ll learn something interesting about the Manuel Correllus State Forest. Woodruff is the sylvan dynamo behind the Friends of the M.F. Correllus State Forest (Friends), a Vineyard nonprofit dedicated to improving public connectivity to the forest, assisting those who manage it, and helping people better understand it.

The Friends are a dozen strong, growing, and financially managed by the Permanent Endowment of Martha’s Vineyard. Woodruff is co-chair, with his longtime friend John Best. The more you ask Woodruff about his role in the organization, the more he tells you how key others are, like forest supervisor Chris Bruno, whom he described as a pillar of the Friends and a terrific steward of the forest. Bruno, who works for the Bureaus of Forest Fire Control and Forestry, described Woodruff’s energy as “pretty darn off the charts.” Pro disc golfer Jake Gifford, who along with Craig Saunders, Porter Thompson, Mark Clements, and state firefighter Karen Lothrop, supports Woodruff’s work with the Friends, said it goes without saying that Bob “cares deeply about the State Forest here on Martha’s Vineyard.”

Woodruff avidly bikes and cross-country skis in the forest. He said he wants the public to tap the full measure of recreational opportunities there. 

“The forest is a huge recreational resource,” he said. 

Frisbee golfing, hunting, hiking, birdwatching, bicycling, jogging, horseriding, dogwalking, plant and insect studying, and cross-country skiing are activities he cited off the cuff. 

As part of a gateway for such activities, which will eventually provide a space for information and education on the forest, Woodruff and the Friends have been at work building a wooden pavilion. 

“A structure to be used primarily as an outdoor classroom for the adjacent high school, and the other schools on the Island, to enable students to discover the secrets of this remarkable place in the heart of the Island,” Woodruff said. “In addition to the classroom function, the pavilion will be a meeting place for all kinds of uses, meetings, demonstrations, exhibits. Being surrounded by stands of trees … we thought, Why not make it from the very trees of the forest? With a few from elsewhere, like my little farm, where mature pitch pines have been falling from the increasingly threatening winds of late.”

Much of the timber for the pavilion comes from pitch pine blown down in the forest during a nor’easter in 2018, he noted. Out of a platoon of volunteers who’ve helped transform logs into pavilion lumber, Woodruff highlighted Michael Berwind, who brought in a mobile sawmill, and Tom Robinson of Island Timber, who brought in skid steer equipment. 

“We even received a donation of four large Douglas fir timbers, in perfect condition, salvaged from dismantling a portion of the old Marine Hospital, now the Vineyard Museum, in Vineyard Haven,” Woodruff said. “About all we need to complete the wood inventory for the project are two 8- by 12-inch logs 26 feet long, a tall order from the Island. We’re in touch with the Island tree folks in hopes they can find trees large enough for the long timbers. We would be happy to hear from anyone who knows of available timbers this size.” 

Carpentry and building trades instructor Bill Seaborne will guide Martha’s Vineyard High School students in doing the joinery for the pavilion. 

“The fact that the high school abuts the forest, and the tons of sawn timber can be moved so readily to the school to be crafted, is a huge plus,” Woodruff said. 

Trained as a wildlife biologist and a forester, Woodruff came to the Vineyard in 1970 as the first head of the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS). 

“Bob is one of our Island’s pioneering conservationists,” VCS executive director Brendan O’Neill said. For 12 years he blazed a trail of preservation at the helm of VCS, O’Neill said, with one of his biggest achievements being the conservation of Katama Farm in Edgartown. At the State Forest, where Woodruff went after VCS, he helped preserve farmland, he said, shielding from development such places as Nip ’n’ Tuck Farm in West Tisbury. O’Neill noted Woodruff even worked with Manny Correllus himself, in a precursor group to the Friends. 

“I was the head of his first and only [forest] advisory committee,” Woodruff said. 

Woodruff said he also spent a decade as head of the Great Pond Foundation in Edgartown.

O’Neill described Woodruff as “incredibly active,” and his advocacy for the State Forest “timely and important” work.

In a nutshell, Woodruff said, the Correllus Forest is 5,300 acres of glacial outwash plain overgrown with plants hungry for fire. For the safety of Vineyarders, especially those who live on the periphery of the forest, and also for the ecological vitality of the land, he’s a strong supporter of mowing and prescribed burns. Like area warden Josh Nigro and Chief Fire Warden Dave Celino, Woodruff describes the forest landscape as fire-dependent. He points out it was not always forested, but was a pine barren or sandplain preserve for the now extinct health hen. A lot of trees in the forest, especially white pines, aren’t naturally part of the landscape, and should be thinned, he said. 

“We’ve got a lot of work to do … not that we’re going to clear-cut the whole thing, but the more we cut, the more we burn, the more we’re going to have the [sandplain] kinds of plants and insects and things that are so rare, that we see on the fire lanes, that are going to pop up all over the forest. And that’s already the case where we’ve done some burning. It’s like a hidden treasure that can be uncovered, like lifting a rug to your living room floor, the rug being the vegetation that is there now, and underneath it, if you will, is this treasure trove of rare and endangered plants … All those species are fire-evolved and fire-adapted plants, and they don’t grow in the morainal part of the Island.”

Among his favorite plants in the forest is the dwarf prairie willow. 

“It stands two feet high,” he said. “It’s like a willow tree that can’t go higher than two feet, or won’t genetically. It’s only found right now on the fire lanes. And the reason it’s found on the fire lanes is because the fire lanes are an absence of scrub oak and pitch pine. They’re mowed. They’re maintained. We don’t burn them particularly, but we mow them.” 

He went on to say removal of the “shrubbier, woodier growth has enabled sunlight to allow these plants to come to life.”

West Tisbury Fire Chief Manuel Estrella III, whom Woodruff has high praise for, doesn’t see the fire lanes as well-maintained, and says in many areas they are so overgrown they can hardly be called lanes. 

Woodruff hopes more brush-cutting (mowing) will take place under Chris Bruno’s watch. If any mowing equipment ever needs emergency repairs, Woodruff said, the Friends would be glad to pitch in for parts. 

The idea is to get more people to explore the forest, and learn there’s much more to it than the term pine barren indicates. “The more we get people out there and can describe it all to them,” he said, “the more people will appreciate and understand that, ‘Wow, that’s not a wasteland there. It’s something special.’”

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