Restoring the Public Trust

The stripping of protected Vineyard conservation land to provide native plants for a private estate on the North Shore in West Tisbury has thrust the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation — the venerable land trust founded by the late longtime editor of this newspaper who campaigned fearlessly for the preservation of the Vineyard environment — uncomfortably into the public eye.

Sheriff’s Meadow was asleep at the switch while an Island landscaper — no doubt blinded by the prospect of hundreds of thousands of dollars in income from a landowner for whom the money was a trifle — scraped and dug up two foundation preserves: the Caroline Tuthill Preserve in Edgartown and the Priscilla Hancock Meadow in Chilmark.

Removing small trees, brush cutting, burning and sheep grazing are well-accepted methods for restoring old meadows. But this was no light job. Trees and shrubs were dug up with abandon, using heavy equipment that left the land scarred and bare.

At the meadow restoration work site on the Tuthill Preserve, some one hundred and fifty acres at the entrance to Edgartown that is used by people who like to walk and enjoy the natural environment there, the topsoil is gone. The Hancock meadow is pockmarked with holes from shrub removal.

Adding a peculiar insult to injury, the plants that were taken grow in the outwash plain, which is marked by sandy, arid soils. The North Shore lies in the glacial moraine, replete with freshwater streams, beech and oak forest and clay soils. Given the two disparate environments, the transplanted trees and plants will need extra care, water and attention to survive, raising questions about the integrity of the landscape restoration project at the home of Dirk Ziff.

Native plants are the focus of growing attention on the Vineyard; the use of them is very much in vogue and demand is high as homeowners strive to create low-maintenance yards that require no pest management or irrigation. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission requires the use of native plants in landscaping for nearly all development projects, and provides a list of suggested plants.

That is a good thing. Many Island landscapers are knowledgeable about native plants and many also do good works, such as collecting seed from meadows and propagating plants from the seed. The process takes longer — but not so much longer — and the result is often more satisfactory, with sturdy, hardy plants grown from seed.

The late Polly Hill knew this and it was the basis for the beautiful arboretum in West Tisbury that bears her name.

But using native plants in landscaping is akin to planting a garden and should not be confused with creating a habitat. A natural habitat is a complex, organic, living breathing thing that grows for many years, sometimes many centuries. It harbors different kinds of plants, grasses and critters including moths, butterflies and beetles. On the Vineyard some are endangered. When the plants are gone the animals are lost as well. The Nature Conservancy recognized this when it declared the sandplain grasslands in the Great Plains section of Edgartown one of the last forty great places on earth.

The habitat at the Tuthill preserve, a gift to Sheriff’s Meadow in the 1970s from the son of the late Caroline Tuthill, has been partially destroyed and will not recover for a number of years. Ditto for the Hancock meadow.

Sheriff’s Meadow has violated the trust of the families that generously gave their land and it has violated the public trust.

The foundation acknowledges that it made a mistake and has issued a public apology which is published on the Commentary Page in today’s edition. A long-held practice of allowing local landscapers to barter their services in exchange for taking out a few unwanted trees or shrubs clearly got out of control and will be halted — at least for now.

But the foundation should go further than that. Mr. Ziff’s landscape contractor — John Hoff, the owner of Oakleaf landscaping, who abused his privileges — should be barred from doing any work on Sheriff’s Meadow properties in the future.

Foundation executive director Adam Moore, who has only been on the job for two weeks, has pledged complete cooperation with the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program to evaluate the damage and restore the land.

It may take longer to restore the public trust.