Anniversary: Conservation Is Crux of Mission Across 40 Years


Forty years ago a group of Island residents formed the Vineyard Conservation Society to fend off a development threat in the Lobsterville moors of Aquinnah. The group convinced the state to put a limited access designation on West Basin Road, effectively prohibiting any future subdivision or development in the area and preserving the untouched strip of land that runs along the northern edge of Menemsha Pond today.

"The society considered it a conservation success," executive director Brendan O'Neill said this week. "The first of many."

Past, present and possibly future members of the Vineyard Conservation Society will gather tomorrow to celebrate the last 40 years of conservation at the result of one of those successes - the Allen Sheep Farm in Chilmark.

Many Island residents might not realize the instrumental role the society played in preserving some of the Island's premiere farms and agricultural land - including Nip 'n' Tuck Farm in West Tisbury and Morning Glory Farm Edgartown - because it often worked behind the scenes as a matchmaker for other organizations. But since 1965 the society has also had a hand in preserving large areas of open space from Katama Farm in Edgartown, to Waskosim's Rock on the West Tisbury-Chilmark border, to Moshup Trail in Aquinnah.

While other organizations on the Vineyard purchase land to preserve the natural beauty of the Island, however, the Vineyard Conservation Society made a conscious decision early on to take a broader approach.

"We did not want to get encumbered with the burden of managing land. We wanted to remain flexible," said West Tisbury resident Robert Woodruff, who served as executive director of the society from 1968 to 1981. "We're the only conservation group on the Island that looks at the entire picture."

The conservation society works with private landowners to develop preservation restrictions, promotes energy conservation through the Energy Resources Group, and organizes the annual Earth Day beach cleanup. The society also started the first recycling program on the Island 35 years ago, and pressed for the creation of town conservation commissions to protect Vineyard wetlands.

Perhaps the most important role the society plays, however, is as an active and vocal advocate for the Vineyard environment - testifying at public hearings on controversial land use topics and, when necessary, going to court.

"Our colleague organizations in many ways rely on us to occupy this unique niche - monitoring and watch-dogging the land use," said Mr. O'Neill, who, now in his 20th year with the organization, has been at the helm for half of its existence. "We have been on the front lines of all of the prominent Vineyard land use debates of the last 40 years."

In the past year alone, the society submitted testimony at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public hearing about the proposed wind farm in Nantucket Sound, and just this summer expressed its concerns to the Martha's Vineyard Commission about the current proposal to build a dense housing development in a fragile sandplain habitat off Edgartown-West Tisbury Road. The society also took on the three private down-Island golf course proposals in recent years, and fought a proposed development in Herring Creek Farm.

One of the landmark battles of the last 20 years was the multi-year effort to halt a proposed supermarket and shopping mall complex at the site of the old Nobnocket garage near the Tashmoo overlook. In that instance, as well as others both before and after, the society turned to its legal defense fund and filed a lawsuit in superior court against the developers, who eventually withdrew their proposal.

Vineyard Haven resident Judith Miller worked for the Vineyard Conservation Society as an assistant to the director for almost a decade and a half, starting with Mr. Woodruff in 1976 and ending under Mr. O'Neill in 1989. Mrs. Miller this week recalled the Nobnocket battle in particular, but said that those types of fights were par for the course.

"Oh, we had an awful lot of them," she said. "But once you've expressed what you're in business for, you have to fight those fights. Especially when some of the people involved - like Bob [Woodruff] and myself - are fighters, you certainly couldn't just sit there and let things go by. You had to fight to protect the Vineyard."

Mrs. Miller said that in her 14 years the society accomplished a great deal.

"We were very successful," she said. "It doesn't mean we won them all, but we certainly won a lot. And some of them we're still fighting, I suppose."

Mr. O'Neill said the society is currently in active litigation to protect the globally rare coastal heathland habitat at Moshup Trail against encroachment by developers who are seeking to use conservation land to access otherwise inaccessible land beyond. He described the legal defense fund as a key tool in the society's efforts, but one that needs to be replenished.

"It's incredibly important to have that kind of a contingency fund on this Island," Mr. O'Neill said. "It was used most recently in the whole southern woodlands debate of Oak Bluffs, when our resources were sorely tested. Our challenge to everyone on-Island today is to recognize the role we play and become aware of the continuing need to refuel that capacity."

The conservation society is a member-based organization that is funded almost solely through membership support. It began with only a few dozen founding members in 1965, shot up to 500 members a few years later, and now weighs in with over 1,200. Mr. O'Neill said he would like to see the number continue to increase.

"We began with a very small board with little or no money, but we had some smart and talented people and we kept plugging away," Mr. Woodruff recalled.

"We were able to involve really an amazing number of people on the Vineyard who let us use their concerns and talents," Mrs. Miller said. "We were very fortunate for getting the kind of support we had."

One of the original founders of the Vineyard Conservation Society was the late Chilmark summer resident Richard (Dick) Pough, a pioneering conservationist who in the early 1950s also founded and served as president of The Nature Conservancy - now one of the world's largest land conservation groups. Mr. Pough (pronounced Poe) remained active in the Vineyard Conservation Society until his death at age 99 in the summer of 2003.

If he were alive today, however, Mr. Pough would almost surely rather that the society look ahead to the future and the battles that lie ahead than focus too much on the past.

Mr. Woodruff, who worked alongside Mr. Pough for many years, described the forward-thinking outlook of the society as its greatest service to the Vineyard.

"I think we've always had our finger on the pulse of the Island, and we're always looking for the danger spots," Mr. Woodruff said. "We've always been thinking ahead and looking ahead, and are still very much in the forefront of conservation thinking."

Mr. O'Neill said the society is constantly looking for new members and support as it prepares to face the next round of land use challenges - whatever that may be. There is still a lot of product in the pipeline, he said, with more than a quarter of the Island still available as undeveloped buildable land.

"We're going to continue to keep our eye on the ball, recognizing that the challenges are only going to increase. Our experience over the last several years tells us it's not going to get any easier to do this kind of work on the Vineyard," Mr. O'Neill said. "So while we would like to thank the people of the Island for supporting us all this time, we would also like to remind everyone that we're still here - fighting on behalf of the Island."