In the weeks ahead, a group of Edgartown residents plans to take a new step to preserve and protect the town's ancient ways and roads.
As many as 30 volunteers will be sworn in by the town as byway wardens. Their mission will be to keep an eye out for illegal dumping and misuse.
Ancient roads and historic paths long have connected Islanders. Today they are a broken spider's web of paths that runs across the Vineyard. Some are hundreds of years old and regularly were traveled by horse-drawn wagons.
They have names like Three Cornered Rock Road or Swimming Place Path, the latter a byway that is recorded to go back 400 years. They run through the backyards of some residential neighborhoods. They are unmarked and go deep into woods where only a compass, the direction of shadows, and an internal sense of direction give visitors any idea where they are headed. They extend conservation land beyond its borders by being open to people who like to ride a horse or walk.
They are a community gift from another era to the 21st century.
Much of the impetus to protect these roads arises from rampant dumping of trash and debris. Also, some abutters don't like them because they open private neighborhoods to public access.
William (Boo) Bassett, chairman of the Edgartown byway committee, said: "The wardens will be ambassadors for the town. They will talk to the abutters and let people know what is going on." And they'll also keep the local police informed about what they see on the byways.
Mr. Bassett and his committee are moving forward with an idea to have six ancient roads in their town designated as district of critical planning concern, so the Martha's Vineyard Commission can help the town craft protective regulations that would insure these roads survive rather than suffer obliteration.
Brendan O'Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, said protecting byways and paths is an Islandwide issue.
"Our Island byways are a tremendously important part of our historical legacy," Mr. O'Neill said. "These old ways connected destinations before the advent of the state highway system. And we are fortunate that many of them remain intact."
Mr. Bassett and his committee are proactive. Not just taking note of the problems with the paths, the piles of trash, and the encroachment by neighbors, he now is organizing an effort to clean up some of them. In the last two weeks, he has approached a number of key players.
Dukes County Sheriff Michael A. McCormack has spoken with Mr. Bassett about using participants in the Community Corrections Community Service Program to volunteer service and collect the debris.
"I thought it was a great idea," Sheriff McCormack said.
Mr. Bassett said he also has a commitment from the Edgartown highway department superintendent Stuart Fuller to provide a truck for the clean-ups, and he's received a commitment from the Martha's Vineyard Refuse District to take the debris.
Just as volunteers help with the annual clean-ups on Vineyard beaches, Mr. Bassett sees volunteers helping to clean up some of these troubled old roads.
And with byway wardens out and about, perhaps the extra community awareness will help bring a drop in the dumping.
"I am a deputy shellfish warden for the shellfish committee," Mr. Bassett said. "I've had this idea of a neighborhood watch for two or three years."
A byways warden would have a similar role in the woods to that played by a deputy shellfish warden on the shore.
Mr. Bassett said that townspeople who have expressed an interest are of varying ages.
"A lot of those that want it are aged 30 to 35," he said. "Usually I've felt young people are apathetic, it is a generation that has no goal. But this age group is involved. They are dedicated." They are people invested in the outdoors and they want to help.
While the wardens will have no arresting authority, they will help the town police department monitor the bylaws.
Police chief Paul Condlin is encouraged by the plan.
"I think it is a great idea," Chief Condlin said. "It is like the old neighborhood watch program. Boo and I talked a month ago."
"It is difficult for us to do consistent patrolling of the roads," the chief said.
Speaking of the prospective wardens, the chief said, "They are familiar with the trails. They can identify when things change. And they will give us the increased ability to identify those responsible for problems."
According to Mr. Bassett, "The wardens will have many duties but most of it will be dealing with the public. They are going to be goodwill ambassadors, talk to abutters, let people know what is going on. We don't want any confrontations. If there is any situation that arises where there is hostility, they will walk away and not get involved. We are into peace."
Earlier this week, Mr. Bassett and a Gazette reporter got in a truck and drove down one of the ancient ways, Ben Tom's Road.
The road starts at the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road opposite the vegetable stand at Morning Glory Farm, and heads north, later crossing Pennywise Path.
Mr. Bassett has memories of his father Gordon using the road. At one time an old farm abutted the road, which now goes through woods.
Not everyone reveres Ben Tom's Road. Over the years, Mr. Bassett has encountered mattresses, refrigerators and construction debris dumped on the ancient way.
The problem of illegal dumping is Islandwide. Mr. Bassett said he'd like to see people mobilize and look out for the interest of these signature roads that trace the history of the Island.
More than 30 years ago, in 1976, the commission designated the Dr. Fisher Road, which runs from Edgartown to West Tisbury, a district of critical planning concern. Years ago, people used the road to travel up-Island.
In many ways, West Tisbury is farther along than Edgartown in protecting important byways. West Tisbury, with the help of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, has already designated six of its ancient ways as an amendment to the Island Road District.
Mr. Bassett would like to see five ancient roads in Edgartown afforded the same attention and ultimate protection: Ben Tom's Road, Middle Line Path, Pennywise Path, Tar Kiln Path and Watcha Path.
He said it's too late to take the idea over the political hurdles for this year, but he anticipates backers will bring the proposal to Edgartown's annual town meeting in April 2008.
"We hope that other towns will follow suit," Mr. Bassett said.
Bill Veno is a planner for the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank and the Martha's Vineyard Commission, with special expertise in trails. He has met with the Edgartown byways committee through the winter to assist them in their work.
The Martha's Vineyard Land Bank, Mr. Veno said, helps towns keep their byways viable by offering manhours and cutting equipment to keep most paths at least four feet wide.
Mr. O'Neill, who has walked many of the Island's ancient roads and paths, said: "The primary threat to these ways is neglect."