Guarding the Flanks of Conservation


From her hilltop home in Seven Gates Farm in West Tisbury, Elizabeth (Tess) Bramhall can tell the month of the year by where the sun sets on the horizon.

"In December it goes down just to the left of the Gay Head Lighthouse, and we lose it for two weeks in June when it goes all the way north," she said, looking out over a panoramic view of Vineyard Sound.

"The way my husband and I live up here, we feel totally integrated with our surroundings," Mrs. Bramhall said of her husband Kib, a landscape artist, with whom she celebrated a 50th wedding anniversary this winter. "I think his paintings are a reflection of the way we both feel about the natural world."

It is a feeling that she takes seriously in her role as board president of the Vineyard Conservation Society, a private nonprofit organization that preserves the environment through conservation as well as advocacy.

"People can speak for themselves, but the land cannot. The natural world needs advocates if we wish to maintain it," she said.

"One should live lightly on the land," added Mrs. Bramhall, 71, a swath of salt in her silver grey hair. "This world is a fragile and finite resource, and man's footprint on it can be too intense and overpowering. We can trample it to death if we don't watch where we step."

Identifying those most fragile places will be a top priority for the conservation society as it works with the Martha's Vineyard Commission to develop a comprehensive Island Plan, which will help chart a course for the Vineyard community in the coming decades. And despite her conservation bent, Mrs. Bramhall said that she takes a realistic view when thinking about the future.

The Island must look to find a balance between natural resources and human wants or needs, she said.

"I'm not against progress. I'm not trying to freeze time," she said. "But I do think we should always be asking ourselves: Are we using too much water? Releasing too much nitrogen? Burning too much fossil fuel?"

They are questions she tries to answer in her own life. One of the first few people on the Vineyard to own a Prius hybrid car, Mrs. Bramhall even in the 1970s drove a fuel efficient Plymouth Champ. But she acknowledged the difficulty in getting other people on board, and described the grief she gives her granddaughter, who drives a large Toyota Tundra pickup truck.

Through education and cooperation, however, Mrs. Bramhall believes a middle ground can be found. She is optimistic, for instance, that the affordable housing and conservation advocates can work together in the Island Plan to achieve common goals by identifying areas that are better suited for dense developments, and those that are the most important to protect.

"If one is to look at the Island as a whole, one could determine which areas have special soils or biodiversity, and which are more appropriate for affordable housing," she said. "We could all get together on this, and I think we will. I really think we will."

She believes in cooperation, and was one of the framers of the conservation partnership - a network of the five conservation groups on the Island. Mrs. Bramhall said the partnership now ensures that the different organizations work together on common goals, instead of stepping on each other's toes, like when they once found themselves bidding against each other for the same piece of land.

And there is still much more work to do, Mrs. Bramhall noted. As of 2004, 34 per cent of the Vineyard was protected open space, but another 30 per cent of the land remained available for development, according to the commission. She said she was heartened by preliminary results from the ongoing survey for the Island Plan which suggested that even though respondents felt the Vineyard was doing a good job of protecting its open space, they still felt it was extremely important to address in the future.

"Even though they felt it's well taken care of now, they still want to see more," she said.

Open space has long been a part of the overall experience and character of the Vineyard, Mrs. Bramhall said, noting that conservation efforts on the Island started well ahead of similar communities on the mainland. The official Seven Gates Farm historian, she pointed to her own neighborhood - started in the late 19th century by a Harvard geologist - as a far-sighted development, where three-fourths of its 1,600 acres are forever preserved under permanent conservation restrictions. Mrs. Bramhall said the Seven Gates founder, Nathaniel S. Shaler, appreciated the unique geology of the area at the edge of the glacial outwash and believed that anyone who wanted to should be able to live in a civil wilderness - that is, living closely with the world around you.

"And I have that feeling, sitting by these rocks here," she said, touching a stone wall over her left shoulder. "This wall has been here since the 19th or maybe late 18th century, and it still winds through the woods, undisturbed."

But Mrs. Bramhall is also aware and sensitive to the exclusivity and privacy of the area, which the average Island resident is not allowed to enter.

"I feel very privileged, and awfully lucky," she said. "I recognize that I live a very special existence."

She knows that environmentalists and conservationists are often criticized as being elitist, but she believes that everyone benefits from open space, even if they are not able to experience it first hand. All the conservation land on the Vineyard protects its sole source aquifer, as well as the health of the coastal ponds, she said, and noted that much of it is also farmed, which can provide both food and a sustainable segment of the economy for the larger population.

The beauty of open space is also an important aspect of the Island, including the views of Seven Gates Farm and its open fields from North Road. Mrs. Bramhall supports efforts by the commission and Martha's Vineyard Land Bank to preserve and enhance the scenic roadways of the Vineyard.

"I get such a sense of pleasure when I go up to Chilmark, drive past the Allen Sheep Farm and look to my left," Mrs. Bramhall said, her eyes closed with a smile. "That feeling that we all get when we see farmland or meadows - it's part of the subliminal experience and love we all have for the Island. It's warm and sentimental, like reading a children's book. It brings you back to the past."

Large tracts of undeveloped private land are not the only way that Vineyard residents benefit from its seasonal community, Mrs. Bramhall noted.

"There's no getting around it - we rely heavily on summer fundraisers and the generosity of our wealthy seasonal residents. And I respect that very much," she said. "We owe a great deal to that segment of the community and its commitment to and love for this Island."

From an affluent background herself, Mrs. Bramhall first came to the Vineyard when she was engaged to her husband, and they spent their summers together in Edgartown before moving to their West Tisbury property more than a quarter-century ago. She said she still feels as if she has one foot in the summer world and one foot in the year-round community, but wishes that such a division did not exist between the two.

And ultimately, Mrs. Bramhall said, it is the way we look at and value the land that will matter most.

"I'm afraid that a lot of people think it's their right to trash, develop or make money off the land," she said. "But land is not merely a commodity to be bought and sold. It's something we have to treasure and protect," Mrs. Bramhall added.

"We have to respect and stand up for its rights."

The Martha's Vineyard Commission is soliciting comment from the public for its Island Plan, a two-year project to develop a five, 20 and 50-year comprehensive plan for the Vineyard. For more information, visit or call the commission at 508-693-3453.