Filling a long-term vacancy, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation has hired Conor Laffey of Falmouth as the new superintendent for the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, state and local officials confirmed Friday.
A spokesman for DCR confirmed in an email to the Gazette that Mr. Laffey was promoted to the position of field operation team leader at the state forest on Jan. 18.
Mr. Laffey previously worked as a forest and parks supervisor at the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Falmouth, and has extensive experience in carpentry and regional forestry, according to the email.
“Mr. Laffey has a strong educational and hands-on background in natural resource protection,” according to the email. “He has led and participated in several comprehensive habitat restoration projects, including natural heathland habitat, which is a prominent feature of the Manuel Correllus State Forest.”
The spokesman said Mr. Laffey is a certified wildland firefighter.
In an email Bob Woodruff, a founder of the Friends of the State Forest group on the Vineyard, said Mr. Laffey graduated from UMass Amherst with degrees in forestry and water resources.
The DCR spokesman confirmed that Mr. Laffey will continue to reside in Falmouth.
“He will be commuting to Martha’s Vineyard, and is prepared to address any issues that may arise at the Forest during off-hours as needed,” the spokesman said.
The vital Island superintendent position has been vacant since March 2020, when former state forest manager Chris Bruno abruptly left the role. At the time, state officials confirmed the departure but provided few other details, saying that they were re-evaluating their management plan for the forest.
As the months progressed, the vacancy became a point of concern for regional emergency managers, especially after the Island experienced one its driest summers in recent memory and pesky brush fires tested first responders.
An ecologically sensitive, 5,300-acre woodland located in the heart of the Island, the Correllus forest provides essential habitat for a variety of rare moth and plant species and more than 14 miles of bike and walking trails. The forest also blankets the Island’s sole-source aquifer, making it a key element of the Island’s unique ecology.
Since Mr. Bruno’s departure, the state has hired firefighter Karyn Lothrop to commute to the Island several days per week from the DCR regional office in Sandwich.
A DCR spokesman said Ms. Lothrop had played a key role during the interim, and would continue in her position as a state firefighter.
Island leaders expressed equal parts excitement and relief about Mr. Laffey’s hire, which came three months after nearly a dozen local stakeholders met with DCR commissioner Jim Montgomery to discuss wildfire planning in the state forest. The October meeting included state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, staff members of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and regional airport.
MVC executive director Adam Turner thanked Mr. Montgomery for acting on local officials’ concerns.
“When the commissioner of DCR was here, that was one of the things that was on our list. We had hoped, and asked him, to get that appointment made, because we felt we needed it,” Mr. Turner said. “He was responsive to what we requested.”
The state forest has only had five superintendents in its century-long history. The eponymous Manny Correllus was the first manager, followed by longtime superintendent John Varkonda, who died suddenly in 2014. But the forest superintendency has seen turnover in the years since, culminating with Mr. Bruno’s departure.
Officials noted that housing was a lingering impediment to stability in the position. Legal issues currently prevent Mr. Laffey from living in a small house designated for the manager on state forest property, forcing the commute from Falmouth.
Mr. Fernandes said in an email that his office was working on a legislative solution.
“Due to the lack of affordable housing on Island, and past difficulties keeping someone employed in this position, I decided to file legislation to allow for a staff member of the Manuel Correllus State Forest to be permitted to live on and maintain the state-owned house that already exists there,” Mr. Fernandes said.
He also expressed excitement about DCR filling the role, even after the nearly year-long wait.
“Our office has been advocating for this hire for quite a while,” Mr. Fernandes wrote. “And I was happy to hear that a superintendent was named to oversee the state forest on the Vineyard.”