Conservation Today

When groups such as the Vineyard Conservation Society came into existence in the mid-twentieth century, the Vineyard seemed a simpler place. And their mission seemed a straightforward if sometimes daunting one: to protect special places on the Vineyard from the same sort of development that was gobbling up so much land on the mainland.

The efforts of these and other nonprofits, along with the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, a state agency created in nineteen eighty-six, indeed have done much to keep the Island a place apart by helping protect and preserve environmentally sensitive areas. Though the Vineyard has not been immune to its own version of sprawl and suburbanization, the Island’s conservation movement has helped the Vineyard walk a different path than most of the mainland.

Now perceptive observers such as Brendan O’Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, have come to realize that conservation is more than stopping the bulldozers.

In remarks at the society’s recent annual meeting, Mr. O’Neill spoke of the broader task facing Island conservation groups and their allies: to help the Vineyard sustain what makes it the Vineyard, to stay within its social, economic and environmental carrying capacity, to preserve and protect the Island’s many balances.

They do their work in a time when local zoning no longer is a silver bullet against overly dense housing. Developers can use the state law intended to create affordable housing to trump zoning. Agricultural easements designed to keep land in productive farming can be sidestepped to create horse farms for the wealthy. Runoff from lawn fertilizers and laundry detergents makes its way into ponds and estuaries, creating algae blooms and killing aquatic life.

Indeed, Mr. O’Neill said the conservation society these days largely has ceded land acquisition efforts to the land bank, devoting its efforts instead to a wide range of initiatives to assist and encourage the preservation of the land and the Vineyard.

One aspect of the Vineyard will not change: its proximity to the tens of millions of people who live in the northeastern United States.

As the mainland grows more crowded, appetites almost certainly will grow for the relatively open land and unhurried existence of the Island. For many would-be Island homebuyers, money will be no object. Growth pressures will continue to lap against the Island, where eighty-four parcels of twenty acres or more remain available for development.

Indeed, Mr. O’Neill told his audience that the Vineyard is prominently featured on the recreational master plan for the city of New York. “Clearly, we cannot hide,” he said.

Despite their accomplishments, Vineyard conservation organizations still have work cut out for them.