The place names are familiar and unchanging: Wasque, Cape Pogue and Long Point, Herring Creek Farm, Cedar Tree Neck and Fulling Mill Brook, Waskosim’s Rock and Pecoy Point, to name a few.
But the people who admire, use and could potentially contribute to the thousands of acres of land in conservation on the Vineyard have changed, and Island conservation leaders say this is what frames their biggest challenge today.
“I think we all get lulled into the sense that everyone knows what we’re all about . . . but I think we need to remind ourselves each and every year, you know, we’ve got a whole new group of people here, that there is turnover on the Vineyard, people come, people go,” said Chris Kennedy, the longtime Islands superintendent for The Trustees of Reservations.
In a conversation with the Gazette last week, directors for four of the five leading Island land trusts revisited their missions, relived their long years of working together with bits of humor and occasional disagreement, and reflected on present-day challenges as they steer their organizations into the future. Time and again, the topic turned to the subtly shifting priorities of the conservation movement and what it is that make people care about protecting land.
Along with Mr. Kennedy, Tom Chase, Islands director for The Nature Conservancy, Adam Moore, executive director of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, and James Lengyel, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard land Bank joined the conversation.
All agreed that the noisy battles that went on for some three decades on the Vineyard over land use, often pitting big developers against conservationists, have long since quieted. Today, the focus is on educating and inspiring a new generation of Vineyarders about the unique Island they inhabit.
Mr. Chase used the sandplain grassland example.
“At one point not too many years ago sandplain grassland and scrub oak frost bottoms became a universal language,” he said. “The kids in schools knew about it, I even heard a selectman in Oak Bluffs refer to scrub oak frost bottom on the town meeting floor. There was this blossoming awareness of local biodiversity and local habitat.
“Today if you went around and said sandplain grassland, people would just think, well it’s grass, right? I think Chris is right in what he says, that there is this constant social turnover — and we have to sort of keep up the message about what the Vineyard has and why we’re so particularly different from the mainland.”
All are members of the Conservation Partnership, a coalition that meets regularly to share ideas, problems and information. This was the dream and the vision of the late Mary Wakeman, an Island conservationist and philanthropist for whom the Wakeman conservation center off Lambert’s Cove Road in Vineyard Haven is named. And while the idea of housing all the groups under one roof was never fully realized, Mr. Kennedy said the center still achieved its purpose.
“I remember my early days in the Wakeman center,” he recalled. “We had talks over the water cooler, if you will. I had come from state government where that was really almost frowned upon; you had your own silo and you worked within that silo. The Wakeman Center mixed all that up.
“I can honestly say, you know, there is competition among the groups — let’s not kid each other, we all need money to operate. But I think one of the things the Wakeman Center forced us to understand is that if a dollar goes to The Nature Conservancy or to Sheriff’s Meadow, and not to the Trustees, that’s okay. Because the end goal here is to preserve and protect this Island which we all love — and that money goes to serve that purpose.
“Even though I’m not suggesting that everyone should give their money to Adam,” he said with a grin at Mr. Moore.
Mr. Lengyel said the cooperation serves a common business need, which is to make sure land owners who are thinking about donating land don’t play one conservation group off against another.
“The Island is finite; there are only so many properties,” he said. “And the various priority properties have been categorized and we meet every other month to trade intelligence . . . We aren’t concerned so much with competition from the supply side because we all see ourselves on the same side of the table. Our concern was the competition on the demand side.”
Keeping in close communication, he added, the groups “have such open communication that no seller could possible divide us.”
Each group is distinct in its history, its mission and its agenda.
For Mr. Moore that includes a quiet shift toward increased public access to Sheriff’s Meadow properties, an ambitious project to remove invasive species and a concerted effort to raise visibility and awareness around the properties. “We want people to know that Sheriff’s Meadow is their land trust, and for a kid growing up here that Cedar Tree Neck is their property,” he said.
Mr. Lengyel articulates a vivid vision of an Islandwide emerald necklace of hiking trails. “It would be a north-south-east-west, coast-to-coast pedestrian hiking trail. And it would be in the form of an archipelago where along that trail are beautiful, sizeable pieces of conservation land,” he said.
Mr. Chase said the conservancy’s global mission of preserving biodiversity has expanded to the corridors of Congress in Washington where political battles are being fought over climate change and its long-term impacts. “We need to start working at state and federal levels to change things like the Clean Air Act. It might take 20 years and it might take a million dollars,” he said. And for The Nature Conservancy, the mission has also turned to the small corridors of wildlife in the backyards of Islanders, where a pilot project is under way to address issues of habitat fragmentation.
Brendan O’Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, was unable to join the group but added his thoughts in an e-mail. “Protecting land remains the fundamental issue,” he wrote. “Our vocabulary may have changed — we couch it less in terms of the ‘battle’ to save Martha’s Vineyard, and more in terms of challenging every landowner to think about what steps they intend to take to secure more open space . . . the need for action has not lessened.”
According to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission Island Plan, 44 per cent of the Vineyard has been protected through a wide array of conservation measures. The percentage is the same on Nantucket, but with a key difference, Mr. Chase said. “In a way Nantucket has done a much more effective job because a lot of their land is contiguous, it’s in large chunks and that makes it easier to manage . . . We’ve got some spectacular properties — Cedar Tree Neck, Long Point, Wasque, land bank properties, but what we don’t have is that aggregate. And when you have things in small pieces it requires more management.”
No one is facing a more difficult challenge in land management than Mr. Kennedy. At Wasque Reservation erosion has ravaged the coastline, spurred in part by the migrating Norton Point breach that began five years ago, threatening at least one private home.
Mr. Kennedy is sanguine about it all. “It’s been a fascinating couple of years for us and certainly the story still has to be written,” he said. “But I think one of my biggest challenges has been to temper people’s expectations. They look at what’s happening at Wasque and they say, oh my goodness, you know, this is awful. But it’s not awful, it’s part of the natural process and part of our job as land managers. Really, they call us wildlife managers, but we don’t manage wildlife, we manage people and we manage expectations.”
And how will he manage this summer? “I’ll spend a lot of sleepless nights,” he said bluntly. “There are long-term challenges and short-term challenges and short term this year, I can’t tell you how safe it is to swim at Wasque. I can’t assure you of that.”
The conversation returns repeatedly to people, to young people and the next generation, to people who love the land for its beauty and how to connect that to the mission of the groups. On this point there is brief disagreement.
Mr. Lengyel said each institution has its own unique lexicography.
“For the land bank the word is vigorous,” he said. “We think about what exhilarates people about land. People are exhilarated by hiking through a beautiful meadow, people are exhilarated by seeing a working farm, people are exhilarated by quahaugging, by swimming, sailing and hunting. The land bank organizes its philosophy around giving people the opportunity to be by their landscapes, and to do vigorous things in them,” he said.
“Everyone loves nature, not everyone knows it,” Mr. Chase suggested.
“The encounter with beauty on the landscape motivates people,” said Mr. Moore. “Beauty is not the only thing but it is an important thing. It’s not something good and practical like stormwater protection — but it shouldn’t be underestimated.”
Mr. Kennedy concluded:
“I don’t think there was a watershed moment when the conservation movement began to realize you needed to connect people with places. Certainly that is a common theme. We’re all recognizing that if we’re going to be relevant to people in the next generation, it doesn’t matter if we have 10 acres or 10,000 acres, if people don’t have appreciation for the land and what we’ve protected, then we’ve failed. Forty-four per cent — it’s a meaningless figure if people don’t appreciate what it really means.”