The family of the late Edwin Newhall (Bob) Woods has gifted 500 acres of rare and unspoiled oak forest, freshwater wetlands and frost bottom in West Tisbury and Chilmark to The Nature Conservancy, the conservancy announced early this week. The gift creates permanent protection for the heart of one of the most significant natural areas on the Vineyard.
Long known as the Frances Newhall Woods Preserve, the large, ecologically diverse property is bounded by Middle Road, North Road, the Panhandle and the West Tisbury-Chilmark town line. It includes upland oak forest that is habitat for scarlet tanagers and other songbirds as well as pocket wetlands, vernal pools and a pond. The Mill Brook runs through the property.
“It’s a remarkable and pristine place,” said Brendan O’Neill, longtime executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, this week.
This marks the second conservation gift in 22 years from the Woods family involving the same property. In 1991 Bob and Jeanne Woods, both dedicated Island conservationists, placed a conservation restriction on the property and gave it to The Nature Conservancy. That restriction will now be transferred to the Vineyard Conservation Society because the same organization cannot hold a conservation restriction on a property and also own it, the conservancy said.
Bob and Jeanne Woods both died in 2011, and their wish that the land be permanently gifted to The Nature Conservancy has been carried out by their three children. “Bob truly loved this piece of the Vineyard, and he ensured that it would be protected forever,” said Tom Chase, director of conservation strategies for The Nature Conservancy on the Vineyard.
The original conservation restriction for the Woods property involved The Nature Conservancy, the Vineyard Conservation Society and the towns of Chilmark and West Tisbury. The restriction was crafted by Steve Small, a tax attorney who wrote Preserving Family Lands, a well-known estate-planning handbook for conservation-minded property owners.
The restriction was in memory of Mr. Woods’s mother and the nature preserve was subsequently named for her. The original total land area was 532 acres, but a 23-acre tract fronting
Panhandle Road was gifted separately to the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society. Mr. Woods’s great-great-grandfather was a founder of the agricultural society, and today the Agricultural Hall sits on that 23-acre parcel.
The Woods property forms the centerpiece of a large mosaic of public and private conservation lands situated in the Mill Brook watershed. The area includes Waskosim’s Rock Reservation, a public conservation property owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, a large tract at Seven Gates Farm and several other private properties with conservation restrictions.
Biologists have documented the entire range of ecological communities that exist on the Vineyard on the Woods property, including eight natural communities, 216 plant species and 62 species of birds, many of them nesting. The property is located at the margin where the Island’s glacial terminal moraine gives way to outwash plain soils. There are rich wetlands along the freshwater Mill Brook and dry hilltops with sandplain species. The Mill Brook supports a rare population of the American brook lamprey, a filter feeding fish recognized by biologists as an indicator of the cleanliness of a water body.
At the time of the first conservation gift from the Woods family in 1991, leaders at The Nature Conservancy called it one of the most important protection efforts to date. The conservancy had identified the Vineyard as a critical area needing preservation due to the high number of natural communities and globally rare species found on the Island. “It was a really significant event in Vineyard history at the time,” Mr. O’Neill recalled. “It was the largest conservation restriction on a private landholding; it was tremendously generous and farsighted. And it was contentious and the cause of weeks of fighting and disagreement.” About 20 years ago a moth expert who spent a study period on the Woods property was astounded to find virtually every species of moth known in the region to visit his light in a single evening.
Ironically, several years ago the invasive winter moth arrived on the Vineyard and destroyed a large swath of oak trees along North Road, including on the Woods property.
But Mr. O’Neill said the dead oaks create new opportunity for more scientific study. “We are at an interesting point and we’ve had some fundamentally changed circumstances with the defoliation from the moths,” he said.
Despite the ecological changes, Mr. O’Neill said the property stands as a symbol of what can go right with conservation in the long term.
“The determination of Bob and Jeanne Woods to protect their property led to subsequent protections: the land bank with Waskosim’s, Polly Hill and all the way to the very headwaters of the Rebecca Gilbert farm,” he said. “That whole corridor is a wonderful case study in how conservation on the Vineyard moves slowly but can be quite effective. It speaks to the importance of patience in this kind of work.”