Green Day Saving the Earth Across 35 Years Of Conservation

By IAN FEIN

Thirty-five years ago today, some five dozen Vineyard residents gathered in Owen Park on Vineyard Haven Harbor and walked along Beach Road into Edgartown, picking up garbage along the way. They filled six trucks with more than two tons of trash, and brought the glass they gathered to the West Tisbury dump, where they gave a demonstration of what would grow to become the Vineyard's recycling program.

"That was the start of recycling on the Island, from that very first day," recalled Robert Woodruff, 70, who organized the event half a lifetime ago as executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society. "We wondered what we could do on Earth Day, and we thought that seemed like a winner."

Mr. Woodruff put together the event as the Vineyard's celebration of the first-ever Earth Day, founded in 1970 by then-U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin to promote environmental grassroots demonstrations across the country.

Today marks the 35th anniversary of what some now call the largest secular holiday in the world.

In conversations with environmental leaders across the Island this week, the Gazette took some Earth Day soundings: How green are we? What are some of the Vineyard's greatest environmental successes of the last 35 years? What are some of our failures? Where do we go from here?

Through the conversations, one recurring theme emerged: While environmental efforts and awareness have grown steadily on the Vineyard over the last three and a half decades, the Island itself has taken a bit of a beating.

"It's impressive how many different groups are working on sustainability issues for the Island. I think that is all very encouraging, and not to be discounted," said Kate Warner, an architect and energy activist who founded the Vineyard Energy Project. "But have we made a significant impact yet? No, I don't think so. We're swimming against the tide."

Earth Day is credited with launching the American environmental movement, ushering in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and other landmark federal legislation such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.

Here on the Island, the decade following the first Earth Day celebration saw the creation of zoning regulations, the Martha's Vineyard Commission and a successful effort to return ospreys to their old homes along the Island coast. Conservation then became a battle cry on the Cape and Islands - and private donors and public agencies heeded the call. The Martha's Vineyard Land Bank formed almost 20 years ago, and today roughly one-third of the Island's 60,000 acres have been forever protected as open space.

But during that same time - even with zoning, the commission and conservation groups - the Vineyard population has experienced unprecedented growth. According to conservation society executive director Brendan O'Neil, the Island has seen an average of one new house appear on the landscape every day, 365 days a year, for more than a decade.

"In terms of land conservation and preservation, the Island has done an exemplary job," Mr. Woodruff said, praising the land bank and other private conservation agencies for their work. "But we have to watch out for too many people. How many sheep can you fit on a single pasture? What is the limit to growth on the Vineyard without wrecking the very thing that everybody comes here to enjoy?"

Farmer and Martha's Vineyard commission member James Athearn agrees. "Every day of my life I commiserate about what we've lost here - like the woods and the peace and quiet," said Mr. Athearn, who has operated Morning Glory Farm since 1975. "All the good that the conservation organizations have done has been rear guard action to save some part of what's already going. We hear we've preserved 190 acres of woodlands and people are happy with that. But it's really that we had 10,000 acres, and we only preserved 190 of them."

Increased development has put tremendous pressure on the Vineyard environment. According to statistics provided by the Martha's Vineyard Commission, the Island produced more than 18,000 tons of solid waste in 2002 - up almost 30 per cent from only five years earlier.

Growth has crowded out some native species and has taken a toll on the health of coastal ponds and shellfish populations. Martha's Vineyard Commission water quality planner William Wilcox, who started with the commission when it first formed in 1975 and returned again in 1990, said the fate of the Island's coastal ponds might be the biggest environmental issue facing the Vineyard in the years ahead.

"Based on information we've been collecting over the last decade, of our 17 coastal ponds only two [Cape Pogue and Menemsha] are clearly in good condition," Mr. Wilcox said. "Sengekontacket used to have heavily covered eelgrass, but it pretty much all disappeared by 1990. Between 1995 and 2001 we found a 50 per cent decline in eelgrass coverage in the lagoon. In Tashmoo during the same time it was a 42 per cent decline, which is a little bit alarming."

Ms. Warner noted that, along with the environment, the Island community has also changed a lot in the last 35 years.

"I was here in the summer of 1970, and this was a very different place," Ms. Warner said. "We used to see very small summer houses, with people coming here to enjoy their time outdoors. Now we're looking at larger houses almost four times the size, more and bigger vehicles that people drive, and a tremendous number of swimming pools being put in. I hate to say this, but our community is now acting in some ways as a suburb to large cities."

Ms. Warner also recognized, however, that many grassroots organizations have sprouted on the Island in recent years to promote a sustainable economy and environment.

The Water Alliance formed last year, bringing together about 20 different Island organizations concerned about coastal resources. The Martha's Vineyard Commission is also beginning work on a new comprehensive plan for the Island.

Ms. Warner pointed to the many groups that participated in the Sustainability Day fair at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury earlier this month as a positive sign, and said that she has been receiving more and more calls from people she does not know asking about solar panels. As a partner in the U.S. Department of Energy's million solar roofs project, she has a commitment to build 500 solar roofs on the Vineyard by 2010. So far she has put up about 70.

"We're a little off pace, but every year we put in more than the year before," she said. "I don't know if we'll meet the 500 roofs, but I do feel like we're really gaining a market share. We have an energy crisis approaching, and I'd like to see the Vineyard position itself for the wave of the future as opposed to having it hit us and then wondering what we should do."

The Vineyard Energy Project authored a nonbinding resolution on all of the town meeting warrants this spring, asking voters to work toward becoming a Renewable Energy Island. The warrant article passed soundly at all four town meetings so far, but garnered little discussion.

Ms. Warner believes the effort is the type of environmental initiative that can bring about real change.

"We need to engage the summer community in our goals," she said. "We need to somehow project the image that Martha's Vineyard is a place where we do things differently - where we're thinking about these different issues, and we want you to be part of that and support it, and then take those lessons learned back to your community and put them into place there too. Because we're an Island, we have the opportunity to serve as a model to other communities across the nation."

Other environmental leaders say that while the Vineyard still has more work to do, it already serves as a model for the rest of the nation.

"We probably have more environmental groups per square mile than anywhere else in the country," said Gus Ben David, executive director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, who started the osprey restoration project in the early 1970s. "Some of our wildlife is better off today than they were 35 years ago. The legislation and local efforts have been phenomenal," he said.

"All you have to do is compare the Island to other areas of the country to see what we've accomplished here is remarkable," said James Lengyel, executive director of the land bank for the last 16 years. "I think we're moving in the right direction. If we keep doing more of the same it will be a great credit to everybody in 20 years. I don't think remarkable new initiatives are necessary. We'll be in good stead if we stay on track."

Mr. O'Neil, whose conservation society will hold its 13th annual Earth Day beach cleanup tomorrow, said the conservation groups still have their work cut out for them. According to the Martha's Vineyard Commission, more than one quarter of the Island is as-yet undeveloped, but still available as buildable land.

"There's still a lot of work to do," said Mr. O'Neil, now in his 20th year with the society. "There is a lot more development that will continue to take place on the Vineyard. There's still a lot of product on the pipeline."

But Mr. Woodruff, like the many environmental advocates that have followed his lead on the Island since that Earth Day walk 35 years ago, remains optimistic.

"There are a lot of people out there who feel the Island is a lost cause. I don't wish to accept that," he said. " It has changed dramatically from when I first came. But we have a huge tradition with the land and sea - farming and fishing - and we can perpetuate it."