During his long tenure as executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, Brendan O’Neill has seen his share of victory and defeat when it comes to environmental protection on Martha’s Vineyard.

From the early battles against developers with deep pockets to more recent battles to take action in the face of climate change, VCS — with its distinct mission of advocacy — has stood out among other Island environmental groups.

Nobnocket, Moshup Trail, Native Earth Farm, the plastics ban — Mr. O’Neill has been at the helm during these causes and more for the past 38 years.

Now he will step down from that role and pass the torch to VCS director of advocacy and education Samantha Look. The announcement of his retirement and the succession of Ms. Look was made by the VCS board this week.
In a Zoom interview with the Gazette, the two reflected on past and future efforts in Island conservation.

Samantha Look was a leading organizer in the fight for a plastic bag ban and has worked with Brendan O’Neill for the last 10 years. — Courtesy of Brendan O'Neill

“It’s been a challenging tenure,” Mr. O’Neill said, “but it’s been an honor serving, and I’ve enjoyed the work despite all those challenges. The challenges are what environmental advocacy work is all about.”

He grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., where the natural environment was under pressure from development. It was part of what led him toward environmental activism.

“I was curious about the Bronx River, which ran very close to my house, and why it was in such sad shape,” he said. He decided to study for an environmental law degree. He took the job as VCS executive director in 1985.
In an interview with the Gazette that year, Mr. O’Neill reflected on the mission before him, warning of the potential for “savage warfare” on environmental issues.

“Growth and change are as much natural processes as anything else that’s occurring in this world, but the VCS’s role is to monitor that kind of change and see that it’s done intelligently and with wisdom,” he said at the time. “The Island is a unique resource, it’s something that, once it’s gone and once it’s altered, its landscape changed, it’s a permanent loss.”

Over the years, he said this week, his legal background has come in handy. 

“There was a period where legal disputes and litigation were a necessary and effective tool for protecting the environment, and I suspect that will be a continuing need going forward,” he said.

He presided over an era in which a proposal to build a supermarket at the old Nobnocket garage was defeated and Native Earth Farm in Chilmark was preserved by VCS.

Some of his proudest achievements include significant conservation efforts around the Mill Brook and the Tiasquam River in West Tisbury and Chilmark, and along Moshup Trail in Aquinnah. He has also worked extensively with private landowners to create agricultural and conservation deed restrictions on their properties. 

Mr. O’Neill also lauded achievements VCS has made in what he called the broader sustainability agenda, including success in pushing for a ban on single use plastic bags and broadening community engagement in general around the most pressing environmental issues of the day. 

Now it is Ms. Look’s turn to take the helm of an organization founded in 1965 as Friends of the Island by a group led by Richard Pough, founder of the Nature Conservancy, and including artist Thomas Hart Benton, actress Katharine Cornell and Gazette publisher Henry Beetle Hough.

An Islander who has long been involved in a variety of environmental causes, Ms. Look was a leading organizer in the fight for a plastic bag ban. She has worked with Mr. O’Neill for the last 10 years, first as a member of the VCS board, then as director of advocacy and education. 

“Brendan does an amazing job of creating a culture that is so thoughtful,” Ms. Look said, praising his leadership and mentorship. “In the calm moments and in the inflammatory moments, Brendan has shown me a way that is diplomatic, and he takes time to really think things through.”

Growing up on the Vineyard, Ms. Look was also inspired by the natural environment to take up conservation work. 

“I spent all my free time outside. I was a horseback rider and my horse was like my vehicle for exploring,” she said. “I take so much spark from being out in nature.” 

Mr. O’Neill said her background in education leaves Ms. Look well situated to take over the top spot. 

“That education umbrella covers a whole range from soft advocacy, outreach and coordination with kids and teachers, all the way to a town meeting floor,” he said. “It’s all part of educating the community about making good choices.”

Reflecting on the long history of Island conservation, both agreed that the primary challenge for Island activists remains unchanged: balancing the economy and development with conservation. 

“The issues haven’t changed all that much ... but they have intensified,” Ms. Look said. “It has been very painful, frankly, at times to see ... It’s a lot of love and a bit of loss.”

To temper those feelings of loss, Mr. O’Neill says he often reflects on a phrase coined by Bob Woodruff, who served as VCS executive director for 12 years: “You can’t lose them all.”

“Clearly, there is no lack of urgency in what we do,” Mr. O’Neill said. “And yes, we feel that we’re in a rear guard action much of the time. But you can’t lose them all, and we do win from time to time, and there’s a hope that the community is with us and that we will prevail.”

A celebration of Mr. O’Neill’s retirement and Ms. Look’s promotion will take place on Tuesday, June 20, at 5:30 p.m. at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury.