Sheriff's Meadow Foundation responds to critics, supporters
The Sheriff's Meadow Foundation (SMF) decision to allow the removal of mature pitch pines from its 153-acre Caroline Tuthill Preserve in Edgartown was not likely to have surprised Tim Simmons, a restoration biologist with the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) called to investigate the work.
The elimination of the trees has its roots in a preliminary management plan dated 1987. The author was Mr. Simmons, then Sheriff's Meadow executive director.
On May 15, Mr. Simmons traveled to the Vineyard to investigate Sheriff's Meadow violations of NHESP's environmental reporting procedures, in connection with work at the Tuthill property and the 61-acre Priscilla-Hancock Meadow off South Road in Chilmark.
Dick Johnson, former SMF executive director and now its restoration ecologist, 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.
Mr. Simmons' investigation began with a telephone call on May 2 from a member of the West Tisbury conservation commission, according to Lisa Capone, a spokesperson for NHESP.
The resulting furor was ignited by a series of stories and an editorial in the Vineyard Gazette which asserted that the conservation organization had violated the public trust and allowed landscaper John Hoff of Oakleaf Landscaping to "stripmine" plants for the benefit of Dirk Ziff, a wealthy West Tisbury landowner. The uproar left Sheriff's Meadow officials reeling.
Last week, Sheriff's Meadow officials mounted an effort to reassure members and the Vineyard conservation community at large that while the private nonprofit had made mistakes, it had made no such deal, and the removal of trees and vegetation was in keeping with long-standing conservation goals.
Mistakes were made
New SMF executive director Adam Moore sent a letter to all foundation members describing the sequence of events and the steps he was taking to ensure better oversight in the future.
In his letter, dated May 30, Mr. Moore said SMF had, with the help of its supporters, succeeded in conserving some 2,637 acres on the Vineyard.
"In addition to introducing myself, I am writing today to address directly the issue of removing native plants from two Sheriff's Meadow properties," said Mr. Moore as described in news stories in the Gazette and The Times.
Mr. Moore described the goals of the work, the informal barter arrangements with Island landscaping firms that had provided services such as mowing in exchange for unwanted plants, and his intention to better oversee work in the future.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
Mr. Moore said, "There was no agreement made between the foundation and the landscaping firm's customer, nor did the foundation know who the customer was."
He said that, unfortunately, Sheriff's Meadow made several errors. Mr. Moore said his job is to regain the trust of SMF supporters and the confidence of the community.
Mr. Moore also described his intention to examine Sheriff's Meadow properties for their potential in three areas: ecology, agriculture and community. That will include efforts to connect to the growing network of Island walking trails and provide a more welcoming public face.
Emily Bramhall of Chilmark, SMF vice president, posted a letter on the Vineyard Conservation Society's online conservation almanac. Ms. Bramhall detailed SMF land management practices and apologized to "those who have entrusted their properties to us, and to all the conservation-minded citizens of Martha's Vineyard."
Ms. Bramhall also took issue, albeit obliquely, with a front page photo in the May 16 issue of the Gazette that showed a property off Iron Hill with its sod removed.
"We have heard particular distress about 'strip-mining,' Ms. Bramhall wrote, "using one paper's choice of words, from another Island property, and we want it to be clear that that property is not owned or controlled by us. Unfortunately, the decision to feature the photograph highlighting the sod removal on the front page has made that image the photographic poster child of the story."
The distress described by Ms. Bramhall is evident in the form of sharp public criticism expressed in several letters to the editor published in last Friday's issue of the Vineyard Gazette.
A letter writer the Gazette chose to identify only as Prudence Burt of West Tisbury took issue with Sheriff's Meadow's explanation of its barter arrangement. Ms. Burt, a landscaper and chairman of the West Tisbury conservation commission, said the issue was not one of fair compensation, but whether "it is right and proper that any amount of plants or habitat should leave the preserves at all."
A letter writer, identified only as August [sic] Ben David 2nd of Edgartown, expressed his astonishment at what he described as the "decimation" of the Tuthill Preserve. Augustus "Gus" Ben David, former director of the Massachusetts Audubon Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the owner of the World of Reptiles and Birds, said, "Never in my educational and conservation career have I seen such a total ignorance and disregard for how a natural ecosystem works."
A letter writer, identified only as Bill Graham of West Tisbury, said someone "hijacked" the beauty from the Tuthill Preserve.
Mr. Graham, the owner of 235 acres off Lambert's Cove Road and Mr. Ziff's neighbor, said, "The hijackers ripped the beauty out of the preserve. They dug it up, wrapped it up, hoisted it onto giant trucks and drove it away, to another place where the public can no longer see it."
Mr. Graham said what happened at the preserve was a public wrong that needed to be addressed by law enforcement, and he called for the SMF board to "promptly request an investigation by the attorney general."
The notion that the removal of trees would create an ethical furor was not included in the management plan by Mr. Simmons. He wrote the property is an "interesting and exciting preserve with above average potential for public enjoyment and benefit."
Mr. Simmons said the open character of the property "could easily be preserved by cutting down the invading tree and shrub vegetation and thus allowing the persistence of meadow species such as butterfly weed."
An undated and updated management cover sheet that referenced planned work in 1993 called for annual mowing of the field by the Triangle. It said that Michael Donaroma did the mowing in exchange for the right to take cedars from the field. The sheet added that Matt Tobin mows and chips branches in exchange for the right to take cedars and pitch pines from the field.
In the crosshairs
Caught in the middle of the management firestorm is landscaping contractor John Hoff.
He found his landscaping business threatened when the Gazette editorial writer called for him to be barred from doing future work for Sheriff's Meadow.
In a letter to the editor, published in The Times last week, SMF president Stephen Crampton referred to "recent abuse" of the arrangement that allowed landscapers to take plants.
Last week, Mr. Moore said that Mr. Hoff did not do anything he was not authorized to do by Mr. Johnson. Yesterday, Mr. Moore said SMF had halted its relationship with Mr. Hoff, as part of a review of all its agreements with landscapers. As for any future work, he said he would treat Mr. Hoff fairly.
This week, John Early, a contractor and former longtime West Tisbury selectman, who uses Oakleaf for landscaping in connection with his building projects, described Mr. Hoff as professional and very hard working. "They have a staff that is sensitive to the environment," said Mr. Early, "and I think that Oakleaf Landscaping just got caught in the middle of this thing. They were following a procedure that had been tacitly, if not explicitly, approved by the owners of the property."
Mr. Early said the trees appeared to be available for relocation, and their removal fit with management goals. "I think he just got caught in the crossfire," said Mr. Early.
Michael Donaroma, an Edgartown selectman and owner of Donaroma Landscaping, said he has done work in the past on the Tuthill property, always under the vigilant supervision of Mr. Johnson.
He said the recent project provided an opportunity to spread around native plant material, something he supports. He said Sheriff's Meadow was "asleep at the wheel" and now it is time to accept their apology, wish them well, and "leave it at that."
He said Sheriff's Meadow got rid of cedar trees and pines, trees that have little value. "We have plenty of cedars and plenty of pines," said Mr. Donaroma.
In SMF's 2006 annual report, Mr. Johnson described the work he was doing with Mr. Hoff under the heading of "more restoration" in positive terms.
He said, "John Hoff and his crew from Oakleaf Landscape also removed hundreds of autumn olives from the fields at Nat's Farm, in exchange for huckleberry, viburnum and red cedars for use in his organic, native landscaping business. This type of barter arrangement is particularly satisfying, because we get important conservation work done without spending any of our cash, we increase the supply of native plants used for landscaping on the Island, and we support a local business that is committed to a sustainable future for Martha's Vineyard."
The question of why SMF's work in Chilmark and Edgartown came to the attention of Natural Heritage by way of West Tisbury is something of a mystery.
On April 28, Mr. Simmons sent an email to Prudy Burt, chairman of the West Tisbury conservation commission.
"Prudy and company," he wrote, "I had an anonymous message about a project that involved the movement of a two-acre grassland in Oak Bluffs to a large recently cleared house lot at Paul's Point. I have no further info, do you?"
Maria McFarland, ConCom administrator, told The Times last week she traded phone messages with Mr. Simmons but did not speak to him.
She said she made no calls regarding Sheriff's Meadow properties. Ms. Burt said she made no call.
In response, Ms. Capone said NHESP received a call from the West Tisbury ConCom "and that was the first NHESP heard of the removal of plants at Sheriff's Meadow. Tim Simmons' site visit followed on May 15," she wrote in an email to The Times.
She said the April 28 email from Mr. Simmons was regarding a separate property that turned out not to be in mapped priority habitat.
Asked for the identity of the caller, Ms. Capone's only response, in the form of an email, was, "a member of the commission."