Island Conservation Movement Takes Stock

By MIKE SECCOMBE

The dire forecast for the future of the Vineyard environment, signed onto by the Island's major conservation groups 10 years ago this week, was wrong. Dramatically, happily wrong.

Among other things, the 1997 white paper predicted the Vineyard would be built out within eight years, and that only a little over 25 per cent of Island land would be protected by 2005. History has proven these figures to be way off the mark.

But, as Dick Johnson, who was executive director of the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation in 1997 and still is today, sees it, that inaccuracy is a measure of success, not failure - for it served as a catalyst for cooperation among Island environmental groups in the effort to preserve as much as they could and raise public awareness about the threat of development.

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Ten years ago an alliance was formed among four groups - Sheriff's Meadow, The Nature Conservancy, The Trustees of Reservations and the Vineyard Conservation Society. It was called the Conservation Partnership of Martha's Vineyard.

"Our mission is to work closely together to achieve a single common goal: to save more land for conservation and to save it rapidly," a statement said.

The partnership shortly afterwards expanded to include the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank.

Ten years down the track, they have done a great deal to fulfill that single goal.

Far from being built out, according to the most recent, 2006 figures some 21 per cent of the Island's total land area remains available. And the amount under protection of one kind or another is 35.6 per cent, or a bit over 20,000 acres.

But a better measure of the achievements of the past 10 years, Mr. Johnson said, is to look at what had happened with the remaining large parcels of land on the Island.

"We identified very early all the parcels of 20 acres or more," he said.

"There were about 260 of those when we started 10 years ago. Now around 205 or 210 of those are left, and as far as I know only about two of those have been developed, in the classic, chop-it-up-into-building-lots sense.

"So we're not seeing a lot of the classic subdivision you saw on the Vineyard in the sixties and seventies.

"On the other hand, I know 45 or 50 of those large lots have been conserved - meaning one of the conservation groups either owns the land now, or owns conservation restrictions on it." He added:

"Most of the new houses you see going up are either on large lots or on lots subdivided prior to 1995."

Even that brings other environmental problems - enormous trophy houses which gobble energy, traffic and water quality issues - but a dearth of land for either development or conservation is nothing like the problem it once appeared.

"[Without aggressive conservation efforts] we could double the number of houses we have now. That much I'm sure of," Mr. Johnson said.

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None of this means that the task of land acquisition is finished for his organization - although it is fast becoming less pressing for some others.

"Sheriff's Meadow has a little under 2,000 acres," Mr. Johnson said. "That makes us the largest private landowner on Martha's Vineyard. The state forest and the land bank both own a little more than we do at this point.

"Then we have about 600 acres under conservation restrictions, that is privately owned but we own the development rights, limiting what can be done on the land. My personal goal is to end up at 3,500 acres by the time I'm done with this."

Mr. Johnson thinks a realistic goal for all the organizations is to put another 10 per cent of the Island's land under protection of one kind or another in the next 20 years.

"There's still some very significant parcels out there," he said.

The most likely buyer of much of that land, by general agreement, is the land bank, which was set up in 1986 and is unique among the groups in that it has a guaranteed income stream, in the form of a two per cent fee levied on most real estate transactions on the Island.

To date the land bank has bought more than 2,700 acres of land, or about 4.5 per cent of the land on the Island.

The land bank was not initially included in the conservation partnership - it is no secret that there were concerns among the private conservation groups that the land bank's existence could have a negative effect on their fund-raising efforts - but was admitted shortly afterward for practical reasons.

Land bank executive director James Lengyel said: "Every other month there is a meeting where we all come together to make sure we are not at cross purposes or stepping on each other's toes.

"This serves a vital function because it would be terrible if we had private landowners who were in a position to play the conservation groups off against each other by trying to get one to outbid the other."

Not that such competition for property is a common thing. The various conservation groups have different priorities. The Nature Conservancy is likely to want areas of more purely ecological significance, for example, while Sheriff's Meadow will consider small areas of local or even neighborhood significance. The Trustees of Reservations prefer to go for what their Island regional director Chris Kennedy calls "large, landscape-style properties." The land bank is very much about access.

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"There is a collegiality as these properties are assigned among the various groups. And it works well," Mr. Lengyel said.

And concern about the land bank taking financial resources from the other private groups has abated over the years. The land bank never does fund-raising activities, Mr. Lengyel said, "because we think that would be a direct infringement on their turf."

Mr. Johnson said fundraising has not been a problem. "Our annual fundraising has been going up 10 to 15 per cent a year," he said, adding:

"What the conservation partnership has done is allow us to understand each others' missions and priorities and complement each other rather than end up in competition."

Mr. Kennedy from the Trustees underlines the point. His organization had come to the view that acquisition was better left to the local organizations with deep pockets, like the land bank and Sheriff's Meadow, while the Trustees spent their money to buy land elsewhere in the state.

"There is probably not much prospect of us getting a whole lot more land on the Island," Mr. Kennedy said.

The Trustees already have substantial holdings. They own outright 1,536 acres and hold conservation restrictions on 27 properties totaling more than 3,000 acres. They also manage nearly 270 acres on behalf of the state. Today their priorities are more educational than acquisitive.

"We have some tremendous holdings which give us a bully pulpit, if you will, to really educate the public. Whether it was school kids in the public schools here, or visitors or members," Mr. Kennedy said.

There are now over 750 children from every Island school in the Trustees' education program, he said, adding:

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"It exposes our Island children to the wonders of our environment, teaches them some basic environmental principles and then lets them experience for themselves on the various properties."

The Trustees example illustrates a shift in priorities which may become more pronounced across the board.

Tom Chase, director of special projects for The Nature Conservancy, said he sees the future as being more about restoration than simply acquisition for conservation.

Harking back to that report of a decade ago, he said: "Never mind the details they got wrong, the bad news really did arrive.

"It's very difficult to find a pond on the Vineyard that hasn't been closed for extended periods for shellfishing. It's very difficult to say that the water quality is sufficient to support viable populations of fish and inshore shellfish that support an economy based on them. It is impossible to say that there are any rare species that are better off now than they were before.

"Speaking for myself, and not for the conservation partnership, my view is that when you don't have a whole lot that's in good shape anymore, that means the era of conservation has now become an era of restoration.

"And restoration opens up many more possibilities.

"For example in the [Martha's Vineyard Commission] Island Plan right now, we're talking about things that would never have been considered a long time ago. We're actually talking about financially feasible ways of removing structures and reuniting land over time [and] doing that while providing affordable housing."

He cited examples of progress in restoration: the reintroduction of fire into the landscape and great strides made in the protection of watersheds and rebounding ecosystems under management in certain locations across the Island.

The conservancy today will launch a large sandplain restoration program at the former Herring Creek Farm in Edgartown.

"This is a time of hope," Mr. Chase said.