Updated March 18
Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation must restore about 25 miles of unpermitted trails it blazed in the Manuel Correllus State Forest. The trails run afoul of standards, set by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and MassWildlife’s Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program, that are meant to protect rare species and fragile ecosystems.
Sheriff’s Meadow, a leading conservation land trust on the Vineyard, has agreed to restore the trails under the guidance of DCR and MassWildlife. Sheriff’s Meadow executive director Adam Moore told The Times Wednesday he did not yet have a restoration cost estimate to share. Moore has taken responsibility for the unpermitted trails, which date from a 2018 pact between Sheriff’s Meadow and DCR for volunteer forest stewardship. Moore said it became evident in the spring of 2020 that trail work done by Sheriff’s Meadow wasn’t backed by proper permits.
“We signed a volunteer agreement in 2018, and when I look back, I should have asked for copies of any permits they had at the time,” Moore said in a Tuesday interview. “This is my mistake, unfortunately. I apologize.”
Moore went on to say over the course of two years of trail work, Sheriff’s Meadow asked DCR if it had permits “and if they could be provided to us, and [we] were told they would be provided, and it turns out that wasn’t correct.”
The purpose of the trails, Moore said, was “primarily to allow access for walking and bicycling use — also to try to restore old trails and reroute certain portions.”
In a public information meeting about the trails system in the Correllus Forest recorded March 4, Priscilla Geigis, DCR deputy commissioner for conservation and stewardship, said, “Last spring it came to DCR’s attention that several miles of unauthorized trails had been created within the state forest, and for the past several months our DCR staff have conducted a review of the situation and a review of our existing trail system.” Geigis provided little insight into how the permitting snafu occurred between DCR and Sheriff’s Meadow.
Eric Seaborn, DCR director of natural resources, described the forest the trails cut through as “one of DCR’s most significant properties for rare species and rare species habitat conservation.”
In the wake of the trail cutting, Seaborn said, most unpermitted trails would be closed and the forest’s trail system would be subject to a five-year monitoring program going forward. Sheriff’s Meadow will be doing the monitoring work, and will report findings back to DCR, he said. DCR staff would also review the trails onsite annually.
In response to a question on how DCR would ensure such trail foul-ups wouldn’t reoccur, Seaborn, like a couple other DCR officials at the meeting, pointed to new forest superintendent Conor Laffey though it wasn’t clear how he might be a game-changer. Laffey filled the vacancy left by former superintendent Chris Bruno. Laffey declined to comment for this story. It’s unclear what role, if any, Bruno played in the unpermitted trail work. Bruno worked closely with the Friends of the Forest, and the organization’s co-chair, Bob Woodruff, to heighten awareness of the Correllus Forest. Bruno, who took a job out of state, couldn’t be reached for comment. Moore made it clear Friends of the Forest played no role in blazing the unpermitted trails. At the meeting, Seaborn also said that as a hedge against such a trail issue recurring, third-party agreements would be executed with greater care.
“Really formalizing partnerships with the people who are proposing projects or activities in the state forest,” he said. “I think we realized it’s really important to formalize those agreements and lay out expectations and clear plans of what everybody should be doing, and who’s responsible for what. I think that’s a learning point from this experience.”
“I think communication and monitoring are key,” Moore said. He also specified that “very clear expectations in writing” would be requisite going forward.
Complaints about ebike use and illegal trail cutting reached The Times in April 2020. At the time, the name of Michael Berwind, a Sheriff’s Meadow board member, repeatedly came up.
“Michael is the chair of our trails committee,” Moore emailed in April 2020, “and an active volunteer. He does have experience in trail design. We are actually working on a new set of standards for trail design and sustainability, as part of an overall sustainability plan for our whole organization.”
In interviews Tuesday and Wednesday, Moore described Berwind as formerly an “active volunteer” who did a good deal of trail work himself. Berwind’s role at Sheriff’s Meadow became somehow untenable following revelations about the unpermitted trail work, and Moore said, “Essentially I asked Michael if he would resign, and he did.”
Moore described Berwind as an avid mountain bicyclist.
Several calls to an Edgartown number listed for Berwind reached a full voicemail box.
“We are not creating anything specifically, however, with electric bikes or electric vehicles in mind, though,” Moore emailed in April 2020. “There are some policy discussions underway on the subject related to what are known as ‘ebikes,’ or pedal assist bicycles.”
At the March 4 meeting, Geigis made it clear ebikes weren’t an option in the forest when she said, “Regulations in general don’t allow ebikes there.”
Moore said he understood the ecological impacts the unpermitted trails can have, and as an example pointed to ground-nesting birds like whippoorwills and northern harriers. If such birds nest in close proximity to the trails in question, he said, they could be disturbed enough by the repeated passage of people to abandon their nests and not lay eggs for a season.
Moore said the restoration process Sheriff’s Meadow will facilitate will include some trail blocking and posting of closure signs. He said brush may be placed on trails to inhibit the passage of walkers and bicyclists. In many instances, left unchecked, flora will reinhabit trail corridors at a fairly swift pace, and he anticipates that sort of passive restoration will occur in many places.
Updated to correct the date of emails.