The Heart of the Island

For centuries ignored, ignited, unwanted, and taken for granted, the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest quietly provides recreation, habitat, and respite for humans and moths alike.

John Varkonda has been the primary shepherd of the State Forest since the days of Manny Correllus some quarter century ago.
Wayne Smith

“Martha’s Vineyard loses her heart to Massachusetts,” lamented the Boston Evening Transcript in May 1926. In truth, the creation of the State Forest eighty-four years back undoubtedly saved the heart of the Island.

While much of the rest of the Vineyard – the best of it really – is now private, cordoned off for part-time use by Bostonians and New Yorkers and Washingtonians, the State Forest is the largest chunk that hasn’t been lost. A well-kept, if not totally pristine, example of a globally rare coastal sandplain, a habitat for a couple dozen endangered species, and a splendid place to spend an afternoon, the State Forest is the Vineyard’s beating heart, a 5,343-acre gem, hiding in plain sight.

The charms of the State Forest may be subtle next to the crashing waves of South Beach, the panorama of the Gay Head Cliffs, or the daintiness of a clutch of gingerbread cottages, but the fact that bus loads of fun-seekers from Des Moines and Tallahassee are not deposited in these woods is perhaps chief among its attractions. A visitor venturing more than fifty feet into the woods is unlikely to encounter another human, never mind a crowd. What one will find are stunning views across frost bottoms, a well-tended network of paths for hiking, running, and biking, and a sense of peace that so many visitors to the Vineyard seek, but that is unavailable in bustling downtowns or on crowded beaches.

For fifty-eight years the State Forest was the domain of Manuel F. “Manny” Correllus, for whom the forest is now named. When his tenure ended in 1987, John Varkonda took over and, for nearly a quarter century, has been the forest’s superintendent, caretaker, landscaper, and only full-time employee (he’s assisted by a laborer in summer).

“I know people who don’t like going to work in the morning,” John says. “I don’t have that issue.” An upbeat man at the wheel of his state-issued pickup, John drives through the forest on a blustery, gray March day, pointing out places where the state has spent over a million and a half dollars in the last decade to create a safer and more ecologically sound forest. While state agencies and Vineyarders generally agree on current forest management practices, differences of opinion about what should be done when, and how, have bedeviled state foresters in the past. In fact the history of management in the State Forest mimics the evolving management of public lands generally.

For most of the Island’s history, what’s now the State Forest was, like much of the nation’s public land, land no one wanted – too sandy for agriculture, and too far from any town or beach for development. Repeated fires, usually set intentionally, and woodcutting meant the forest wasn’t even much of a forest. In the early part of the twentieth century, the area was just a featureless plain of scrub oak – a grabby, woody bush that tries to scrub the clothes off of anyone foolish enough to walk through it. Apart from the occasional berry picker and a bunch of weird moths, only the endangered heath hen (see The last stand, page 56) seemed to like the place, and even it went extinct in 1932.

After the state purchased the land in 1926 came the professional foresters. While the sandplain’s stunted native oaks and pitch pines might have given lesser men pause, these khaki-clad optimists planted row upon row of red pine, white spruce, and white pine, anticipating an Island timber boom that never materialized. By the end of the 1990s, the red pines were succumbing wholesale to a fungus, the white spruces were only thriving in the frost bottoms (and thereby disrupting that unique habitat), and the white pines were cheerily taking over when not being blown down in storms. The last attempt, in 2006, to encourage commercial-scale harvesting of white pine ended with the state’s decision not to accept any bids; the bidders only wanted the biggest trees. Only two small-scale Island lumbermen actively toil in the forest now, and they only occasionally. “They maybe take five thousand board feet a year. I grow twenty thousand,” notes John. He doesn’t plant white pines, the trees are “volunteers”; the current plan is to keep them, likely not native to the Island, contained.

The forest is managed primarily as a recreation area at this point, says John, noting the many miles of trails, the disc-golf course, and the fact that the State Forest is for many hunters the only place left to hunt. Use of ATVs and motorcycles damages the trails and is prohibited in the forest, but it happens anyway. “I was out chasing them this morning,” John mentions, with resignation. Equestrians can also use the forest, and while heavy use by horses has damaged trails in the past, that’s currently not a problem. Many cyclists use the paved paths at the forest fringes, but off-road cyclists are welcome on all the trails, and biking offers a great low-impact way to cover a lot of ground. Noting that cyclists are easy on trails, John says, “A cyclist and bike weigh around 170 pounds. A horse weighs, what, 1,600?”

While recreation is the primary use, the management priority right now, according to John, is “public safety, or ‘hazardous fuels mitigation,’ in state jargon.” It wouldn’t do to have the Island’s largest public recreation area bursting into a conflagration that ravages thousands of acres and threatens hundreds of homes. Though in the last sixty-odd years the State Forest hasn’t seen a large fire of the type that regularly rolled across the landscape in centuries past, the threat is still real. John vividly describes scrub oaks as a fantastic fuel, and pitch pines that could almost intentionally lob their flaming cones over the forest’s fire lanes. To lessen the threat, the state is employing a sort of three-pronged strategy: wider fires lanes, mechanical thinning with an emphasis on dead red pines, and controlled burns. “A lot of what we do for hazardous fuels mitigation is also good for endangered species,” says John. “It’s a nice dovetail.”

But even something as seemingly simple as widening fire lanes isn’t always simple. Tripling the width of the fire lanes in the early 2000s meant encroaching on endangered moth habitat, so the state’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) forced the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), which runs the forest, to restore habitat on a one-for-one basis, that is one acre restored for every new acre of fire lane. The area chosen for restoration was Willow Tree Bottom, the forest’s largest frost bottom.

Frost bottoms are those narrow valleys created by the outflow of glacial waters at the end of the last ice age, perhaps most noticeable as sudden dips in the Edgartown–West Tisbury Road. Called frost bottoms for their tendency to collect cold air at night and yet get quite warm during the day, the extreme weather in the bottoms provides unique habitat for a collection of rare moths that enjoy the combination of scrub oak and offbeat weather. “Geologically, it [the State Forest] is interesting because of the frost bottoms, and biologically it’s interesting because of the insects that live in the bottoms,” says Bill Wilcox, the water resources planner at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission who has worked in and around the State Forest for decades. “It’s a fascinating place.” The white spruces also liked the weather in Willow Tree Bottom, which perhaps reminded them of the more northern ranges where they flourish, and were choking out the native vegetation to the point where the spruces were actually insulating the bottom from its signature temperature swings. So in 2003 and 2004 the DCR cleared away sixty acres of white spruce in Willow Tree Bottom, presumably to the delight of the moths, and definitely to the delight of the NHESP.

The DCR was even persuaded to mow to widen some of the fire lanes, rather than harrowing. Harrowing is basically plowing up the soil, and such disturbances change the mix of vegetation. Mowing is less invasive, and the end result is better meadow habitat that is also easier to maintain. And newer fire lanes on the northern edge of the forest don’t even look like fire lanes, but rather are sinuous meadows of waving golden poverty grass with a few trees left here and there. “They [fire lanes] don’t have to be runways,” notes John. The older fire lanes, first created in the 1920s and ’30s, with their regimented grid and long vistas of bleak, rutted roads surely do little to entice visitors.

Neither do big stands of dead red pines. John notes that red pine is a beautiful and hard wood that’s a pleasure to work with and commercially valuable. But these red pines were planted at the southern edge of their range, and when they got toward the end of their life span, they were less able to fight off the fungus and other insults (John jokes that he’s noticing the same thing in himself). To reduce fuel loads and improve aesthetics, the state has hired contractors to remove the dead wood. Not useful for lumber since it’s been dead too long, the red pines are gathered into the jaws of a harvesting machine called a shear, and then ground into mulch that’s later packaged for landscapers and gardeners. Six sites, totaling 110 acres, were cleared in January 2009; the appearance of those areas now varies from mildly disturbed to ransacked, depending on how densely the red pines had been planted, and how much scrub oak and other native vegetation was around – but John promises the scrub oak will return quickly. Scrub oak, John observes, is particularly unfazed by being run over by heavy machinery; “It says, ‘Hey, that feels pretty good.’” The remaining 130 or so acres of dead red pines should be gone within a couple of years, depending on funding.

However resilient to trampling and beloved of moths, the scrub oak itself is a fire threat, and John says the state is “ramping up” plans to do controlled burns. Again, the thought of intentionally setting a forest ablaze, especially one as fire-prone as this one, seemed crazy until relatively recently. But as foresters across the country have come to learn more about using fire as a tool and about the consequences of not burning and letting fuel loads build up, the practice has become accepted. The prescribed fires they’ve done in the last few years, in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy and other conservation partners, have shown promising results, with lasting reduction in fuel loads and low mortality among larger trees, which in turn help block the wind and thus reduce the spread of fires that do happen. Pointing to a 2008 burn site where the trees – post oaks and white oaks – are slightly charred at the bottom but very much alive, John says, “That area still won’t carry a fire.”

The DCR hopes to burn about 250 acres total this spring, this fall, and next spring, using stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The areas will be burned in small chunks of less than 15 acres, and only under strict parameters governing climate and fuel conditions. “Burning outside the prescriptions is a big no-no,” says John, noting that the highest priority areas for burning are closest to homes built near the forest edge. The result of the burns will be reduced fire danger and better habitat for fire-adapted and fire-dependent species that call the State Forest home.
Challenges of funding and manpower aside, John Varkonda takes visible pride in the work accomplished over the past twenty-three years. “We’ve made some great strides. Not as fast as some people would like, but we’re in a good place and moving in the right direction.”

The last stand

Poet, writer, and civic leader Dionis Coffin Riggs, who passed away in 1997, remembered seeing the heath hen before it became extinct in 1932, and wrote this essay that ran in an early edition of the magazine.

“Look out the north window, dearie,” Aunt called out, then, “Come quick, before Mr. Gifford’s order cart comes by and scares them away.”

I ran to the window. The field across the road was full of birds. There must have been a hundred of them, like a flock of small hens, bigger than bantams, but not as big as regular hens. They were sort of striped or spotted in reddish brown and white.

We watched them picking away at something – grasshoppers maybe, or weed seeds. I don’t know what they found that was so good to eat. They stayed a long time, then a horse and buggy drove by, and they flew away.

“This is the only place in the world where those birds live,” Aunt told me.

“Just on this Island?”

“Yes, just on this Island of Martha’s Vineyard. Once they lived all over the East Coast, especially New England and the middle Atlantic states. They were so common that people shot them and ate them. They even got tired of eating them, the way you get tired of fish when you spend a week with a fisherman.”

Another time I watched the birds doing their courting dance in the field next to Jimmy Green’s.

My big sister Barbara called me. She had set the alarm for four o’clock. It was still dark, and I was sound asleep. I hadn’t heard the clock.

“Wake up, wake up, or we’ll miss the dance.”


“Yes, the he’th ’en,” she said. (That’s what everybody called them.)

We dressed quickly in warm clothes and went down the road as fast as we could to Jimmy Green’s field. Some scientists had built a sort of box at the edge of the field so they could study the birds. We climbed in and huddled. We could peek through the cracks.

The robins had waked up and were singing – quantities of them. It began to get lighter. Everything was quiet, except the robins and one song sparrow.
Bab poked me with her elbow. That made me mad, but she didn’t care. She just pointed to the field, and there were birds, birds like the ones Aunt had shown me.

“Watch them,” Bab whispered. “There’s another, and another, coming out from under the scrub oaks.”

They began to make the strangest sound – tooting like the steamboat whistle, almost.

“The wail-of-the-wind spirit,” Bab whispered in a strange way.

The sun was just peeking out, and the scrub-oak plains began to look reddish from the little oak blossoms. We could see the birds plainly. They began to open up their tails like fans, and raise long feather spikes like cows’ horns, only smaller to match their size. The funny sacs like tangerines swelled up on each side of their necks. Bab said that was how they made the tooting sound.

They began to dance. They stamped hard on the ground, and very fast, and jumped up in the air. Then they would make the booming sound again.

“The dancers are all males,” Bab said. “They are trying to attract the girls, and the girls are pretending they don’t know it.”

We watched for a long time until Bab said, “Let’s go. My foot has gone to sleep.”

We tried to sneak out, but they all flew away.

People tried to save the heath hen. They raised a lot of money and bought a reservation for them. They made laws that would protect them. But their worst enemy was fire.

 Carelessness with fire, when the scrub-oak plains were dry and burned easily, was responsible for much trouble. People even set fires because burning helped the wild-blueberry crop. Even on a calm day, wind would come up suddenly and spread fire out of control. One bad fire swept clear across the Island, and when it was finally put out most of the heath hens were dead. The mother hens would not leave the nests.

At last there was only one old cock drumming in the field. He fanned out his tail, poked up the feathers on his neck, puffed out the orange balloons, and tooted like the steamboat whistle, but no lady birds came.

This article was edited from the original, which ran in Spring 1988. Published with permission of founding publisher, William E. Marks.