Vineyarders testify for Fernandes’ forest bill

Onsite superintendent seen as a hedge against fire.

Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, testified before the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture Tuesday in support of a bill he sponsored that would provide housing to the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest superintendent. —

Updated May 12

Vineyard officials joined Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, before the Massachusetts legislature’s Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture on Tuesday afternoon in support of a bill that would provide state employee housing in the State Forest. 

Sponsored by Fernandes, the bill would permit use of an already existing dwelling inside the forest boundaries to serve as the residence for the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest superintendent and other forest staffers. Christine Todd, chair of the Dukes County Commissioners, Dukes County commissioner Tristan Israel, Martha’s Vineyard Commission special projects planner Dan Doyle, and Friends of the Correllus State Forest co-chair Bob Woodruff gave oral testimony to the committee. 

Woodruff told the committee the forest is “surrounded by a necklace of preserved open space” owned privately, through land trusts, and by the MV Land bank and “in total” comprises 40 percent of the Vineyard’s landmass, yet the forest has nobody living it to help protect it. Woodruff pointed out the present superintendent, Conor Laffey, commutes daily to the Vineyard, as does Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) firefighter Karen Lothrup. 

Woodruff said no state staffers are present in the forest during off hours, and are not available on short notice during those periods — a period fire could strike.

Woodruff noted the dwelling housed state staff in the past, and is sorely needed, given the high cost of housing on the Vineyard. 

“The Friends of Correllus urges you to pass H. 909 to help the forest attract excellence in staffing,” he said, “whether temporary or permanent, and if possible, we suggest the act become available immediately upon passage. Further, we urge that you make reasonable restrictions on the compensatory rent that DCR staffers would have to pay.”

Todd stressed the threat of wildfire has significantly increased on the Vineyard, and the threat demands forest staffers be onsite. “Here we have a property that’s sitting vacant,” she said.

Israel said for fire safety and for tourists’ safety in the forest, “having full-time management — somebody on the ground in a place that’s already there — I think is so important.”

Doyle said DCR “often plays a central role” in the coordinated fire response Vineyard fire departments make on fires within the borders and outskirts of the forest. He pointed to recent brush fires that had proved “persistent” as a reminder of that coordination,which makes the difference in extinguishing them. With that in mind, he said, DCR and its staff having one foot off-Island and one foot on Island, firewise, “just has its limitations.”

In a letter to the committee, Edgartown Fire Chief Alex Schaeffer wrote that all the Vineyard’s fire chiefs are concerned about turnover of the first superintendent position.

“In March 2018, the Dukes County fire chiefs wrote to DCR to advocate for the house to be used to retain one of the many hires we have seen over the past years without a [resolution],” Schaeffer wrote. “I am concerned that the capital investments made toward wildfire risk reduction within the state park will be lost without the consistent management only a committed long term manager can accomplish.” 

Fernades told the committee the average home price on the Vineyard last year was $1.5 million. 

“I would love it if we paid our public servants and state employees enough to be able to afford higher home costs, but it’s simply unattainable for folks working with a state salary through [DCR],” Fernandes said. “So we really need housing on the Vineyard for this superintendent. It’s becoming an urgent need. The position had gone unfilled for years and before that three superintendents had gone through in a very short period of time. I think over a course of four years. So incredible turnover. And it’s becoming a growing risk. This is a huge forest and fire risks are increasing year after year as climate change becomes more pronounced.”

Fernandes also pointed to illegal camping as a growing risk for fire. 

“This seems like a really simple solution to a very challenging problem,” Fernandes said. 

The committee didn’t have questions for those who testified. It’s expected to take up the bill in the coming weeks.

Updated to correct comments made by Bob Woodruff.