There are times when it’s hard to see the environment for the trees.
Look across the Martha’s Vineyard landscape and that mantle of woods, growing where once the land was substantially denuded, and things look pretty good.
But beneath that green canopy, as Vineyard Conservation Society executive director Brendan O’Neill points out, are 78 parcels of land, ranging in size between 20 acres and 100 acres, which remain undeveloped, but also unprotected from development.
There are six parcels of 100 acres or more.
There are houses mushrooming at a rate of one a day — at least until the recent economic slowdown reduced it to one every 1.3 days. There are problems of water quality, habitat fragmentation, of energy use, of housing affordability.
Housing affordability? What does that have to do with conservation?
Well, as Mr. O’Neill told his audience of 50 or so conservation society members, office holders and others, gathered for their annual meeting on Tuesday afternoon, these days conservation has to be defined broadly, not just to include land, but also materials, energy, and the fabric of a community.
In the somewhat clunky argot of sustainability, this means “living within the carrying capacity of supporting systems,” he said.
The theme of his address was conservation, looking forward. And looking forward, it emerges, also looks complex.
What happens when the skyrocketing cost of land means working people are shut out of the market?
You get 40B residential developments, which can bypass zoning laws and crowd in more, cheaper housing.
“Forty B,” Mr. O’Neill told his audience, “is a stark reminder to us all that zoning is not permanent. It can always change in response to inevitable pressure — in this case the very understandable demand for affordable housing.”
What can you do, when a worldwide demand for second homes causes “havoc with the fabric of the community.”
You can look to tighter local regulation, establishing things like districts of critical planning concern through agencies like the Martha’s Vineyard Commission as a “back way in” to fighting “big house blight.”
(He illustrated his point with a picture of what he called the poster child of trophy homes, on Main street in West Chop.)
Likewise, he suggested excessive energy consumption, suburban lawns chemical runoff and light pollution could be tackled.
The Vineyard has done pretty well in preserving land, Mr. O’Neill said.
Over the past 30 years, more than 5,000 acres of privately owned land has been protected through conservation restrictions, in total some 25 per cent of the open space on the Island.
But what happens when that restricted land is not preserved for sustainable food farming, but is instead turned over the stables, or horse farms or nurseries?
You need to start combat what he called a dangerous trend by drafting conservation restrictions more tightly, to ensure covenant farmland remains available for food production.
The point is, the conservation agenda these days is about a lot more than acquiring land. Indeed, the conservation society is barely involved in that endeavor anymore.
Other organizations, including the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, do that.
When VCS did get involved in land protection, it was to match landowner with a trust or do the legal work drafting conservation restrictions in the contract.
“Or we act up front in a legal defense capacity against a legal threat,” Mr. O’Neill said.
“When people say, ‘Which group are you’, I like to say, ‘We’re the advocates.’ ”
And that means, he said, that VCS, more than any of the other conservation organizations, has had a finger in many pies.
It became more obvious as he ticked off some of the issues, things as varied as lobbying for Cape Wind to be required to devote some profits to energy reduction measures, working to get the Steamship Authority to install recycling bins (it took 20 years, he said, but they did it), endorsing a line of recommended products like low phosphate detergents in stores, campaigning to encourage people not to use so much pesticides and fertilizers on their lawns, to starting a composting program.
It’s not just about saving trees. Indeed, there were conservation properties on the Island where the trees were unwanted, and where conservation meant removing them. He noted that a couple of other organizations — the Massachusetts Audubon Society being one, had begun using grazing as an energy efficient way to clear land.
The take out of it was that in this conservation age, everything is related to everything else.
Lest it sound overly-daunting, Mr. O’Neill noted: “The Vineyard has demonstrated a remarkable determination and resiliency in the face of the development threat over these last many decades.”
Notwithstanding all the challenges, he said many of the natural systems remain intact and functioning.
And while the environmental challenge is becoming more complex, the essential nature of it has not changed much since VCS was founded almost 50 years ago.
Mr. O’Neill reached back to the words of one of the founders of the society, Dick Pough who identified the greatest threat to what he called the charm and uniqueness of the Island: “The proximity to the great megalopolis of the Northeast.”
As it was in 1965, so it is now, said Mr O’Neill.
“One fact speaks volumes,” Mr. O’Neill told his audience. “Martha’s Vineyard is prominently featured on the recreational master plan for the city of New York.
“Clearly, we cannot hide.”
In the formal business of the meeting, three new board members were named: Pulitzer prize winning author Geraldine Brooks, Dr. James Pritchard, now retired, a professor of neurology at Yale, and lawyer Eric Hammerlin.
The new president, Bill Henderson, also made a presentation to his outgoing predecessor, Tess Bramhall, an Alison Shaw photograph of Seven Gates Farm, signed by the directors.