State's Environmental Officer Retiring

By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL

Sgt. William L. Searle, state environmental police officer for the Vineyard, will retire from his post at the end of this month. Sergeant Searle, who is 54, is retiring for personal reasons, on June 30. He and his wife, Linda, are selling their Island home and moving to Florida.

Sergeant Searle started on the job in September of 1987. He has overseen the enforcement of state and federal wildlife and fisheries regulations, overseen oil spill cleanups in every Island harbor and participated in many searches for missing persons in boats, planes and in the forest.

"I have reached a point in my life where I feel it would be good for me to retire," Sergeant Searle said yesterday. Last winter was a tough winter weatherwise, so they looked for warmer clime. He and his wife purchased property in Florida. "It is a whole series of minor items that add up to make it worthwhile for me to retire now, rather than later," he said.

When Sergeant Searle first stepped in as state environmental police officer, his title wasn't entirely understood by the community. The Vineyard had a natural resources officer. Sandra Lucas was his predecessor, but the job grew with the responsibilities of a nation and a commonwealth concerned about protecting the environment and species of animals that were either protected or endangered.

"A lot of new regulations came of age. The Martha's Vineyard Commission, state and federal laws have all been around before I came into the job. But it became refined over the years," Sergeant Searle said.

Sergeant Searle oversees 6,000 square miles of area, including the Vineyard and its surrounding waters.

Since he started the job, Sergeant Searle was the first to get the call when a fishing boat was missing, when a whale washed up on the beach or when a deer was hit on the road. He was the first to get a call when a fisherman thought his lobster pots were being poached, when undersized striped bass were being landed at Wasque or when someone was missing on a walk in the woods. He was called in when there were concerns about coastal bird habitats being threatened or when a home heating oil tank was leaking fuel.

His phone rang often. For anyone with a police scanner, Island law enforcement officers knew him simply as "November 10."

Sergeant Searle said: "When you work in the public sector, you are working for the taxpayers. I have worked with many on the Vineyard. I can honestly say I have worked all over the commonwealth. The people here are the most conscientious when it comes to the environment, more than almost anywhere else I have been."

The sergeant said: "Environmental law enforcement issues are most often created by people not living here on the Island. Across the board, most environmental related crimes, whether they be on the water, on the land, fishermen and-or hunters, most of the big issues have come down in the last year from people from outside. They want to rape the natural resources that I am responsible for, or the people want to come here to make some drastic change to the environment; it is not only distasteful aesthetics but it is injurious to the environment, areas on the Vineyard that might never recover. Most of it is done by people who have no connection to the Vineyard."

Sergeant Searle has done a lot for the Vineyard community. In 1996, he was the founder of Dukes County Search and Rescue, a crew of volunteers who at a moment's notice will help in the search for a missing person. That person might be a child lost in the woods or a senior citizen suffering from some form of dementia. And worst of all, it might be a plane that had crashed. The sergeant's corps helped in the search for the missing airplane piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr. that crashed on the night of July 16, 1999. The plane was later recovered far south of the Vineyard.

Sergeant Searle was involved in protecting the Vineyard from oil spills after the cruise ship Queen Elizabeth 2 ran aground one and a half miles southwest of Cuttyhunk in August of 1992. He assisted Secret Service personnel and the Navy for eight years when the Vineyard was a summer vacation spot for President Bill Clinton.

And in May 2003 he was involved in the effort to protect the Vineyard when tens of thousands of gallons of oil was released from a grounded barge in Buzzards Bay. Sergeant Searle has been a part of most every major environmental story on the Island dating back to his first day on the job. As recently as last January he was the official who delivered the cease and desist order to Corey Kupersmith, who was clearcutting trees on his property in the southern woodlands of Oak Bluffs.

About his appreciation for the kindness of others, Sergeant Searle told the Gazette back in January: "How many places have you even heard about where when there is a search going on, people drop whatever they're doing to help? How many people do you know on the mainland who would show up at a fire station at three o'clock in the morning with a five-gallon pail of kale soup to make sure that everybody has got something warm in their tummy? This is the only place that I've ever heard of where the community is still a community."

Sergeant Searle is proud of his work on the Vineyard. He considers himself lucky. Before working for the state, he worked for the county at the Dukes County sheriff's department and as a Chilmark police officer. Prior to that he was a commercial fisherman.

Much of his work in law enforcement has involved connecting people who might want the same result but can't see how to collaboratively reach that goal. The best evidence of that way of thinking goes with the Dukes County Search and Rescue. "I started as a deputy director of the Dukes County Emergency Management. And he saw a need to coordinate the efforts of many to do search work. He said of Search and Rescue: "It was the first time public safety personnel have come together to support a single entity that is a resource for every police department, every fire department on the Island, without letting politics and local personalities get in the way."

Sergeant Searle's blueprint for the county search and rescue team is being copied by other communities. Sergeant Searle said he has heard from public safety officials in places as far away as England who are interested in how he got it done on the Vineyard.

"I cannot think of one place, doing this kind of work, that is on one hand challenging and on the other hand so rewarding," Sergeant Searle said. "I hope that my replacement will receive the same respect and cooperation that I received while I worked here."

Later this year, Bill and Linda Searle will move to the Fort Meyers area of Florida. Mrs. Searle is leaving the Edgartown post office, where she has worked for many years.

"We are retiring, we are healthy and we can enjoy life. I fully intend to spend my time fishing and boating," Mr. Searle said.