The removal of plants and trees from conservation land owned by the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation for use in a large private landscaping job began some two years ago, according to documents detailing the extent of the damage done by the operation.
The documents, obtained by the Gazette through a public records request from the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program within the state division of Fisheries and Wildlife, also reveal that those removing the plants from the Priscilla Hancock Meadow in Chilmark had not filled the holes they left in about one third of cases.
An investigation of the plant removal operation by Natural Heritage last month confirmed multiple breaches of the state endangered species legislation. The state now is working out details of what action to take against those involved — including Sheriff’s Meadow, the landscaper who removed the plants, John Hoff of Oakleaf Landscape, and his client Dirk Ziff, who owns property at Paul’s Point in West Tisbury.
The records were released to the Gazette late last week.
In a public statement issued after the state investigation began, the foundation acknowledged a “failure to initiate internal discussion, follow regulatory notification procedures, understand the scope of the activity contemplated and provide adequate supervision of any removal efforts [which] point out weaknesses in our procedures and, in this case an unfortunate lack of judgment.”
The foundation also has since sent a lengthy letter to donors explaining and apologizing for its actions and outlining a new vision for the future. Signed by executive director Adam Moore, the letter is posted on the Sheriff’s Meadow Web site. Among other things, the letter acknowledges that the foundation had made an arrangement with Mr. Hoff for the land clearing, but states that it did not know who Mr. Hoff’s client was.
Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation vice president Emily Bramhall has posted her own letter of response and explanation on the Vineyard Conservation Society’s conservation almanac, an electronic newsletter that is mailed to society members and others in the Island conservation community.
The documents released last week show clearly that the land clearing practices which first appeared to have been going on for a matter of weeks at the foundation’s Caroline Tuthill Preserve in Edgartown had been going on for years on the more remote up-Island site in Chilmark.
The trail that led to the Sheriff’s Meadow land clearing project began with an inquiry to Tim Simmons, a restoration ecologist at Natural Heritage, about another project. In April, Mr. Simmons sent an e-mail to the West Tisbury conservation commission informing them he had received an anonymous query about a project that involved the movement of a two-acre grassland in Oak Bluffs to a large recently cleared house lot at Paul’s Point.
It turned out the Oak Bluffs property was not listed as priority habitat, a state designation applied to places which harbor rare or endangered animal and plant species.
Mr. Simmons later learned about land clearing work that was taking place at the Caroline Tuthill Preserve and the Priscilla Hancock Meadow — and that all the plant material was being taken to Mr. Ziff’s property on the north shore. All three properties are in part listed as priority habitat.
After inspecting all the sites on May 15, Mr. Simmons confirmed significant damage to both the Sheriff’s Meadow properties, and several breaches of the endangered species act.
Subsequently, the state asked Sheriff’s Meadow to compile maps and reports on the total areas disturbed, the types of vegetation removed and the types of backfill used to restore the areas.
In response, Sheriff’s Meadow said approximately 33 large trees, mostly pitch pines and some cedars, were removed from Caroline Tuthill.
“Most of the damage was caused by the heavy machinery that was used to remove the trees and occurred over approximately two acres of the property,” the response said.
“The fill used was a sandy mix that was mostly taken from the Ziff property.”
At Priscilla Hancock, the foundation said, multiple viburnums and huckleberries were taken over a two-year period.
“The first year resulted in approximately 4.5 acres of affected habitat and this year the activity resulted in approximately two acres of affected habitat.”
“The damage was done by the machinery and by the removal of the vegetation. Only about two thirds of the holes created by this project have been filled.”
The documents released by Natural Heritage also reveal Mr. Ziff has engaged a lawyer and surveyors to assess the full extent of priority habitat on his land.
In correspondence dated May 23, Eric W. Wodlinger, a partner at Rackemann, Sawyer & Brewster in Boston who is representing Mr. Ziff, notes that his client is prepared to comply with conservation requirements and requests lists of the endangered species believed to be located on both the Sheriff’s Meadow properties and on the Ziff land.
The letter also states Mr. Ziff and his landscapers may have been unaware of the legal requirement to obtain Natural Heritage approval for their landscaping plans.
“The parties involved may not have been aware that certain areas protected under the NHESP [Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program] and MESA [Massachusetts Endangered Species Program] were implicated in the work, perhaps because no town permits were required,” Mr. Wodlinger wrote.
But if the landscapers were unaware of the endangered species requirements when the Ziff project began at least two years ago, records obtained separately by the Gazette indicate it is unlikely they could have been unaware when they began work transplanting the trees from the Caroline Tuthill Preserve in April.
Roughly a month before that work began, John Hoff of Oakleaf Landscape made inquiries of the West Tisbury conservation commission about a three-acre parcel of land for sale on Scotchman’s Lane in West Tisbury. It was believed Mr. Hoff was representing Mr. Ziff.
Mr. Hoff specifically asked about any conservation rules which might apply to the land. On March 18, conservation agent Maria MacFarland wrote to Mr. Hoff, saying: “You can go to the NHESP Web site . . . to view the priority habitat map or stop into the office and look at mine.”
Meanwhile, Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation annual reports show Mr. Ziff has been a substantial donor for a number of years.
Mr. Ziff is listed among the President’s Circle donors in the 2001 annual report, which includes people who have donated $5,000 or more for more than one year.
His name likewise appears in 2002 and 2003.
In 2004 and 2005, the President’s Circle noted the Dirk E. Ziff Foundation had given between $5,000 and $9,999.
Mr. Ziff does not appear as a donor in 2006, but in 2007 he reappeared, this time to the foundation’s Henry Beetle Hough Society, which includes donors who gave between $1,000 and $4,999.
Yesterday a spokeswoman for Natural Heritage said officials still were working on a response to the damage, but it is expected all parties will be required to work on remediation of the sites. After his initial inspection, Mr. Simmons said they probably would be required to restore at least twice the area which had been damaged.
Sheriff’s Meadow executive director Adam Moore said he expected formal notification from the state on remediation plans very soon.
“They have called and I’m expecting a letter from them and they would like Sheriff’s Meadow to take the lead on a remediation plan for both these properties,” Mr. Moore said.
He said he understood the state would meet individually with the other parties and they too would be involved in land reparations.
Meanwhile, Sheriff’s Meadow has begun a process of reviewing management plans for all its landholdings and has terminated previous handshake agreements with local landscapers, which allowed them to take plants from foundation land in exchange for help in maintaining that land.
“There’s a great opportunity here to develop a first-class management plan,” said Mr. Moore.