Soundings : Wear sturdy shoes
This Saturday, when the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank Commission marks National Trails Day with its 16th annual Cross-Island Hike, the agency and the walkers who join in will be celebrating, among other things, three little words that the Vineyard study committee wisely inserted into the template of the Nantucket charter.
The Nantucket legislation - Chapter 669 of the laws of the commonwealth, enacted in 1983 - lists eight purposes for which its agency may purchase land. The Vineyard legislation, enacted two years later, lists nine. Section 5 of the Vineyard Land Bank charter includes "easements for trails" among the allowable purchases. This, as it turns out, may be the happiest phrase ever inserted into legislation shaping a public agency on Martha's Vineyard.
James Lengyel, executive director of our Land Bank, talked about the importance of trail easements while walking last week, on a recklessly beautiful morning, at Blackwater Pond Reservation in West Tisbury. The fiddlehead ferns were uncoiling, the season's first lady slippers were in bloom and goslings were tumbling after their parents along the banks of Duarte's Pond.
Blackwater Pond Reservation is 106 acres, with a network of trails you can spend happy hours exploring, and its namesake is an Island rarity: a beautiful pond without a single water-view home on its margins. The trails here include paths over property the Land Bank owns outright, but also across property belonging to The Nature Conservancy and over easements on private land. This is nothing unusual, says Mr. Lengyel: "That's just the story of the Land Bank."
Viewed through the lens of legal papers filed at the registry of deeds, this network of trails is a quilt, stitched together patiently over the years. But the walker's experience is seamless, and here is the power of what the Land Bank is accomplishing across the Island.
Trail easements happen when private landowners agree to allow access across their property, enabling the Land Bank to connect parcels in a way that opens a whole new experience of the landscape. Martha's Vineyard is more than 100 square miles - four times larger than the land mass of Manhattan - but from inside your automobile it can sometimes feel confining. "These trails," says Mr. Lengyel, "make the Island bigger."
Over the years, the acquisition of trail easements has been a steadily growing part of the Land Bank's work. Is this because the agency is pursuing them more aggressively? Mr. Lengyel doesn't think so: "I think it's happening because success begets success. And support begets support."
Bill Veno at the Martha's Vineyard Commission, who first came to the Island for a two-year stint planning trails for the Land Bank, has been drawing up routes for the annual Cross-Island Hike since 1998. In the early years, he recalls that weeks of work were sometimes involved to secure one-day permission from landowners to cross their properties so a route could be completed. This year's 15.2-mile hike, he says, was comparatively easy to plan, because much of it follows the newly completed West Tisbury cross-town trail.
Photo by Nis Kildegaard
Observes Mr. Lengyel: "Over time, there are more and more links, and fewer and fewer needs for permission. That's just another testament to how things have come along."
When the Land Bank's new maps come out later this month, they will contain more trails than any previous edition. Of particular note will be the new cross-town trails in Oak Bluffs, West Tisbury, Tisbury, and Chilmark. "The essential spine of these trails," says Mr. Lengyel, "is from a downtown area into the State Forest, or from water to water. So in Vineyard Haven, it's from Lagoon Pond to the State Forest; in Oak Bluffs, it's Ocean Park to the State Forest; in West Tisbury, it's Duarte's Pond to Sepiessa Point; in Chilmark, it's South Road to Great Rock Bight."
In the end, the impact of the Land Bank's steady acquisition of trail easements over the past two decades is difficult to overstate. It's one thing to set aside properties that offer beautiful, enjoyable experiences. It's another thing to enable people to enjoy them without having to hop from property to property via the internal combustion engine. The idea that our experience of the Vineyard landscape is limited not by access to trails, but by the strength of our legs and comfort of our shoes, takes us back to something that hasn't been available here for generations.