In 1896 William Mayhew escorted a Boston Globe reporter to Noman’s Land to meet the Butlers, the Island’s lone, rather eccentric inhabitants. Mr. Butler, after explaining that their daughter was possessed by the spirit of a Boston milliner and would often race around the house in a fit of hat trimming, conveyed the desolation of the place, perhaps as idiomatically as possible: “We don’t git any news here at this time of year ’ceptin what comes on the wind, and it’s about two months now since we’ve heard from the American Continent. Are we fighting England over the Venezuela affair?”
Noman’s, recovering from a half-century trial as a Naval bombing range, is still as lonely and forsaken as in centuries past. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intends to keep it that way.
At a Wednesday night public meeting in Chilmark, Fish and Wildlife presented a Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Noman’s Land Island National Wildlife Refuge, and invited comments. Refuge Manager Libby Herland first walked the audience through the extensive cleanup effort the Navy has undertaken in clearing ordnance, removing underground storage tanks and contaminated soil, and repeatedly testing the island for environmental toxins.
As it is, Ms. Herland said, the island poses no threat to wildlife but remains hazardous to human visitors due to unexploded bombs that are occasionally revealed in the frost-thaw cycle or by erosion.
While public access has never been seriously up for consideration, it represented the most contentious area of debate on Wednesday night when it was revealed that Fish and Wildlife is working with the Wampanoag tribe to provide limited access to the refuge for ceremonial purposes.
“Why are you considering access for some people and not others?” wondered Rick Shweder, an anthropology professor at the University of Chicago and seasonal Chilmark resident. “If you go to Galapagos Islands, for instance, you are escorted around and there are limited ways to access the area. Noman’s Land is a public resource, paid for by taxpayer money. Why not think about ways of having limited access for the public?” he said.
Ms. Herland explained that the public was not allowed to visit Noman’s under the non-negotiable terms of Fish and Wildlife’s transfer agreement with the Navy, and that the Wampanoag tribe is treated by the U.S. government as a separate nation with rights not afforded to the general public. But the rebuke was not severe enough for former Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary director Gus Ben David who strode to the front of the stage and launched into an impromptu peroration on the perils of public access.
“In 1973 the legendary Henry Hough sent me to Noman’s with a government biologist!” he began. “He told me to come back and said to me, ‘Whatever the truth is, I want to hear it.’ . . . well, Gus Ben David came back with a glowing report. It was a wildlife refuge of incredible integrity because of its use by the military. I’m in total opposition to this gentleman [Mr. Shweder].”
The noted naturalist continued: “Do a little research on what’s happening over on the Galapagos Islands. It’s turned into a horror show. Like Martha’s Vineyard itself it has become a victim of its own beauty.”
Mr. Ben David continued at some length inveighing against Mr. Shweder before being cut short by the moderator.
Others came to the event with pet projects in mind, such as Jonathan Scott of West Tisbury, whose amateur research has convinced him of a Scandinavian settlement that predates Columbus’s arrival in America by several centuries.
“I’m interested in the early Norse history of Noman’s,” Mr. Scott announced to the evident surprise of Fish and Wildlife representatives.
“My grandfather was the caretaker of Noman’s during World War II and I have his original notes where he thinks Leif Eriksson had a compound. The search for tangible evidence of a Norse settlement on Noman’s Land; that should preclude everything else,” he said.
“If you can provide us some of your information in writing it would be helpful,” offered Ms. Herland.
Others, like Susan Epstein of Chilmark, were concerned about smoke clouds from prescribed burn operations, such as one carried out in 2008 that left the south side of the Island shrouded in a smoky veil due to the unpredictable nature of prevailing winds.
“In 2008 the wind shifted,” Ms. Herland explained remorsefully.
“It sure did,” responded Ms. Epstein.
Finally, concerns were raised about the prospect of building wind turbines south of Noman’s, as prescribed by the state Oceans Management Plan, in the direct path of the Atlantic flyway, an important migratory route for shorebirds. Ms. Herland agreed that it was a troubling prospect and that the Fish and Wildlife Service had sent a letter to the state calling for more site-specific data before moving forward with any wind turbine projects off Noman’s.
With the Fish and Wildlife Service endorsing a management style that would allow Noman’s to succumb to “natural processes,” even endorsing a National Wilderness designation for the refuge that would require an act of Congress, Noman’s is as wild now as it has been at any point in the past hundred years. Although some Islanders may lament its inaccessibility, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and its supporters, seem determined to preserve this essential wildness, most importantly by shielding it from intruders from the American Continent.