Sheriff's Meadow thumped over land management actions
The Sheriff's Meadow Foundation (SMF) found itself in violation of state environmental regulations and the subject of a front page and editorial page drubbing last week by the Vineyard Gazette. It was an unfamiliar public role for the respected private conservation organization, whose uncomfortable exposure resulted from its mismanagement of two of its Island properties.
This winter Dick Johnson, then SMF executive director, discussed with John Hoff, owner of Oakleaf Landscape, plans to remove plants and trees from the 61-acre Priscilla-Hancock Meadow located off South Road in Chilmark and The Caroline Tuthill Preserve, a 150-acre property located near the Triangle in Edgartown that is popular with walkers. The work began this spring.
However, Mr. Johnson failed to properly notify the state's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP), the agency responsible for enforcing the provisions of the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, of the work that would be done on the properties, which fall within the category of state designated "priority habitat."
Any landowner who plans to do any work that does not fall under one of 12 specific exemptions in an area designated by the state as priority habitat must file a description of the work with NHESP for review. That would include a private landowner who wants to clear land for a house or to expand a backyard.
The priority habitat designation is based on the known geographical extent of habitat for all state-listed rare species, both plants and animals. It is a designation that covers approximately 75 percent of the Vineyard.
The extent of the work on the two properties led to an investigation and a site visit on Thursday, May 15, by NHESP restoration biologist Tim Simmons and a finding of violations.
Tuesday, Lisa Capone, a spokesperson for NHESP, said that the agency would likely require SMF to perform some type of habitat restoration, but the form that will take has not yet been determined.
Mr. Johnson, who stepped down from the administrative post and assumed the role of restoration ecologist this month as part of a shift announced earlier this year, was responsible for supervising the work on both properties.
Mr. Johnson did file a management plan for the work in Chilmark but failed to fully describe that work. He did not file a plan for the Tuthill property.
The filing omissions were compounded by the extent of the work that took place, and the environmental and visual impact left by the heavy machinery used to move large trees from the Tuthill property.
Mr. Hoff had removed vegetation in the past and done other work for SMF as part of a barter agreement that provided him with native plants in exchange for labor. There is no indication that Mr. Hoff did anything he was not authorized to do by Mr. Johnson.
SMF has a history of making informal arrangements with local landscapers in order to remove vegetation not consistent with its land management plans from properties.
At the Hancock Meadow the goal was to expand the native grasslands. Trees were removed from the Tuthill Preserve as part of a long-standing management plan to create a meadow, according to Sheriffs Meadow.
SMF mea culpa
The Vineyard Gazette reported first on the Sheriff's Meadow violations on May 16 in a front page story, "Native plant stripping violates state law," by reporter Mike Seccombe.
The front page photo showed a property off Iron Hill that had been stripped of a large section of its meadow. The photo caption did not identify the owner of the meadow.
The Gazette story ran with a subhead, "Conservation group allows dig for wealthy landowner."
The Gazette reported that three properties, two owned by Sheriff's Meadow and a third private property with a bluestem meadow had "been virtually strip-mined to provide native plants for a billionaire landowner who is building a huge home on the north shore."
The homeowner in question is Dirk Ziff of West Tisbury, a wealthy investor and one of the heirs to the Ziff-Davis publishing empire. The Gazette reported that Mr. Hoff was combing the Island for plants in order to replicate a native landscape on Mr. Ziff's Paul's Point property.
The Friday Gazette also included comments by Mr. Simmons following his visit to the Island the day before to inspect the properties in question. Mr. Simmons said that Mr. Ziff was also in violation of the law because his property is also priority habitat.
The story included comments from Mr. Johnson who described SMF's long-standing barter arrangements based only on a handshake. He took full blame for what he conceded was a major mistake. He said the responsibility was his and not Mr. Hoff's. The story included no comments from any Sheriff's Meadow board members.
In public and in private, in a visit to the offices of the Gazette and in a letter to the editor from board president Steve Crampton, Sheriff's Meadow apologized and said it would tighten its policies.
The May 23 edition of the Gazette carried another front page story that reported on the change in Sheriff's Meadow policies and an editorial, "Restoring the public trust." The Gazette editorialist said Mr. Hoff should be barred from doing future work for Sheriff's Meadow and that the foundation "has violated the trust of the families that generously gave their land and it has violated the public trust."
The story provoked a furor among some Gazette readers, including John T. Daggett Jr. of Keswick, Virginia, who wrote, "It is very clear that Henry Hough did not envision strip-mining practices when he wrote the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation charter in 1958."
It was a strange position for Sheriff's Meadow to find itself in. Henry Hough, the former editor and owner of the Gazette, founded the conservation group. Historically Sheriff's Meadow had rarely if ever found itself the target of the Gazette's editorial outrage until last week.
In his letter to the editor, Mr. Crampton said Sheriff's Meadow had shown an unfortunate lack of judgment and he apologized to the foundation's supporters and to all "conservation minded citizens of Martha's Vineyard."
Mr. Crampton rejected the notion that any "strip mining" had occurred or that there was some deal with Mr. Ziff. He said Sheriff's Meadow does not normally know the identity of landowners who may be receiving any of the plants or trees removed from its properties.
Mr. Crampton said SMF was implementing new policies and procedures. "And we will redouble our efforts," he wrote, "to make sure that your trust in Sheriff's Meadow Foundation has not been misplaced."
Mr. Crampton invited Gazette readers to call or email new SMF executive director Adam Moore. A revised letter to the editor provided by Mr. Crampton appears on page 14.
For Mr. Moore, his first month on the job placed him firmly in the eye of a public relations storm. A graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, he is no stranger to Vineyard land management. From 1998 to 2001 he worked for the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank.
Yesterday, in a telephone conversation with The Times, Mr. Moore described how the issue unfolded and discussed new policies that have been drafted in response to the current controversy.
Mr. Moore said that Mr. Hoff was looking for plants and Mr. Johnson wanted plants and trees removed from the two properties. In the case of the Hancock field, he said that Mr. Johnson was experimenting with a technique to restore sandplain grasslands that involved scooping up woody vegetation and replacing it with sand.
Mr. Moore said the plan filed with NHESP described the removal of viburnum. The plan did not describe the removal of huckleberry, the scooping of soil, or the fact that the work would involve an approximately two-acre site. Mr. Johnson was aware of what Mr. Hoff was doing, Mr. Moore said.
Mr. Johnson filed no NHESP forms for the Tuthill work. However, the work was conducted in keeping with an existing SMF management plan that called for allowing landscapers to transplant trees in exchange for mowing the fields. The goal for years was to have a meadow visible from the road.
As the trees got bigger, removal became more problematic. But Mr. Ziff could afford to pay the expense for the machinery needed to transplant them.
This spring Mr. Hoff went to the property and flagged the trees he planned to take, according to Mr. Moore. SMF staff removed some of the flags from trees they did not want removed.
In total, Mr. Hoff removed 33 flagged pitch pines and cedars from the property. Mr. Moore said as far as he knows Mr. Hoff did not remove any trees that had not been flagged.
Even when Mr. Johnson became aware of the size of the machinery that would be used to remove the trees, he did not stop the work. Mr. Moore said in hindsight Sheriff's Meadow should have been aware of the equipment that would be used and how it would affect the landscape.
Earlier this month Mr. Johnson learned that NHESP was looking into work on both properties and that a storm was brewing. On Friday, May 9, Mr. Johnson called Gazette editor Julia Wells. It was unclear why he called Ms. Wells before speaking to his board or Mr. Moore.
On Monday, May 12, Mr. Johnson told Mr. Moore, who was off-Island the previous Friday, there was a problem and described the extent of it. Mr. Moore had work on the Tuthill property stopped immediately.
Mr. Moore said he questioned Mr. Johnson and learned there was no permission from NHESP and no written agreement with Mr. Hoff. At that point, he realized SMF had a big problem, he said.
On Thursday, May 15, Mr. Johnson took Mr. Simmons, who was the SMF director prior to Mr. Johnson, for a tour of the properties and later that day they both met with Mr. Moore and Mr. Crampton.
Mr. Moore said he and Mr. Crampton told NHESP that SMF would cooperate completely and do whatever it needed to do to rectify the situation. Mr. Moore said SMF also began an internal review.
Mr. Moore said the new draft policy requires NHESP permission and a detailed written agreement that describes the scope of any work and the payment arrangements, including barter with any landscapers.
Reached by The Times yesterday, Mr. Hoff declined to comment.