A detailed five-point plan to rehabilitate two Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation properties that were mined for trees and plants early this summer to landscape a private North Shore property — in breach of the Endangered Species Act — has been submitted to state environmental authorities by the conservation organization.
Foundation executive director Adam Moore yesterday outlined the draft plan which was submitted to the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) last week, saying it would ultimately restore five times the land area damaged by landscapers who were working for West Tisbury property owner Dirk Ziff.
Mr. Moore also foreshadowed a comprehensive overhaul of the foundation’s land management practices which he hopes will ultimately see a higher proportion of the foundation’s land holdings opened up to the public, and some of the land turned over to agricultural production.
In May it was revealed that Sheriff’s Meadow had allowed the removal of 33 large pitch pine trees from the Caroline Tuthill preserve in Edgartown. Heavy earth moving equipment brought in to do the work seriously damaged some two acres of the preserve.
It also came to light that the contractors working for Mr. Ziff also had taken, over a two-year period, a large number of plants from a second Sheriff’s Meadow property, the Priscilla Hancock Meadow in Chilmark. Significant damage also was done to that site, with the contractors not even bothering to backfill about one third of the holes dug to extract plants.
The two Sheriff’s Meadow properties, as well as parts of Mr. Ziff’s 30-acre property near Lambert’s Cove, are listed as priority habitat, a state designation applied to places which harbor rare or endangered animal and plant species. Any alteration of priority habitat areas is subject to review by the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP).
But Sheriff’s Meadow did not inform Natural Heritage or file a management plan as required by law.
Nor did the contractors working for Mr. Ziff — John Hoff and Oakleaf Landscape, who had a handshake deal with Sheriff’s Meadow to remove some plants in exchange for maintenance work on properties — and David Rathbun of Bird Island Trust — which brought in the heavy equipment.
After an inspection by Natural Heritage revealed multiple breaches of the act, the conservation organization apologized and began work on a remediation plan. They also ended, temporarily at least, the informal handshake deals they had with various landscapers, saying the landscapers had taken advantage of their trust.
Mr. Moore did not work for Sheriff’s Meadow at the time the damage was done. His predecessor, Dick Johnson, no longer works for the foundation.
Mr. Moore addressed the problems on Monday, before some 350 members and donors at the organization’s annual summer fund-raising gathering and dinner at a private home in Chilmark.
He said the removal of the trees and shrubs had been done “in accordance with our property management plan goals to restore meadows and grasslands.”
However, he admitted the foundation had erred by failing to file a management plan for the Tuthill preserve and by not filing an adequate plan for the work the Hancock Meadow.
“So we ran afoul of the rules of Natural Heritage. We also did not properly oversee the work. But we have taken steps to prevent future such errors,” Mr. Moore said, adding:
“We have submitted a five-point plan to Natural Heritage to resolve this matter. Two components of this plan are restoration of the affected areas at Caroline Tuthill and Priscilla Hancock. The other three are additional habitat management that are gong to take place on currently unmanaged areas of properties Sheriff’s Meadow owns across the Island.
“I look forward to reviewing all of our properties for their ecological and agricultural potential and for their ability to serve the community. I want to make the properties more welcoming; I want to encourage public access to our lands. I’d like to connect to the growing network of Island trails,” he said, adding:
“I want to support Island agriculture. I want to strengthen Sheriff’s Meadow’s connections to the community, because basically we’re a local land trust and that’s a community organization.
Yesterday, Mr. Moore provided more detail about what Sheriff’s Meadow had proposed. He said however, details could change, subsequent to the Natural Heritage assessment of the plan.
At Caroline Tuthill, he said, they plan to sow warm season grass seed and native wild flowers in the areas where the trees were removed and vehicles had driven. This will happen over a two-year period.
As well as restoring that two-acre area, the foundation plans to expand the amount of land covered by pitch pine savannah by successively cutting a series of small areas in the adjoining oak woodland, over about five years.
“It will total 10 acres. Two acres was damaged by the tree removal work; the plan is to rehabilitate five times as much land.
“We’re looking at a five-to-one benefit,” Mr. Moore said.
“We essentially have a maturing forest there, and this would create new areas of pitch pine forest.”
At the 61-acre Priscilla Hancock Meadow, the first step will be to fill in the holes left by the contractors.
“In some areas, where there is more clay, we want to remove probably the top inch or two of that, put down a sand substrate and then put in plants with a mulch,” he said.
He said some plugs of little bluestem and switch grass will go in, probably in the fall.
It has yet to be determined who will do the work.
More significant than the short-term restoration work, however, may be Mr. Moore’s vision for opening up more land for public use.
Sheriff’s Meadow owns more than 140 parcels of land, totaling over 1,780 acres. It also holds conservation restrictions over another 26 areas totaling 425 acres. Only eight of those properties are now open to the public.
Mr. Moore acknowledged criticisms that while the land is protected from development it is too often also closed off to the public. He said he plans to review all previous arrangements with land donors, to see which ones can be opened up.
“And I want to ask anyone who’s thinking of giving us a conservation restriction if they would be interested in incorporating a dormant trail easement or dormant right of way that might become useful in the future if it will connect to something,” he said.
“Sometimes they won’t, but I think it’s something we should always consider as part of either negotiating to buy an easement or negotiating to accept an easement or buy a property. “I think it’s something we have to do.”
He also acknowledged the increasing interest in locally-grown food, both across the country and on the Island, through the Island Grown Initiative.
“I think Sheriff’s Meadow can help,” he said. “Some of the lands we own have been in agricultural use at one time and could be returned to that.”
He suggested a prime prospect for such use is Nat’s Farm, the 56-acre property off Old County Road in West Tisbury.
“But we would likely need to revise our existing management plan,” he said.
Mr. Moore has only been in the job since the start of May; he said it will take some time to review all the options.
Finally, he said the foundation is still working to determine the value of the materials taken by landscapers from Caroline Tuthill and Priscilla Hancock.
“I don’t want to speculate [about the market value of the trees which were removed] but we are going to obtain outside estimates from independent people in the landscape business,” he said.
The assessment is important, he said, not so much to determine how much benefit Mr. Ziff’s contractors gained from the materials given to them by Sheriff’s Meadow, but to determine fair prices for any future arrangements with outside contractors.
“If we’re going to do that [allow plants to be removed from conservation land for private use], we need to proceed on an informed basis,” he said. “On the other hand, we may decide to do things differently in the future.”
He said the foundation has yet to determine exactly how much money it raised from this week’s event. But 350 people attended the gathering, and 270 stayed for dinner. The price was $50 a head to attend the gathering and $150 to $500 for dinner. Richard Lazarus, an environmental attorney who lives in Washington, D.C., and Chilmark, was the keynote speaker.