Issue resolved with state, Sheriff’s Meadow finds issues remain over Gazette coverage

During the past six months Sheriff’s Meadow found itself in the unusual position of claiming that it was the victim of unfair and inaccurate press coverage by the Vineyard Gazette. Henry Beetle 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.

Mr. Moore took over the helm of Sheriff’s Meadow on May 1. Before he had even unpacked his suitcase, he found himself in the spotlight when the Gazette, on May 16, published a front page story, “Native plant stripping violates state law,” by reporter Mike Seccombe.

The front-page photo showed a property at Iron Hill in Oak Bluffs 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 Edgartown newspaper reported that Sheriff’s Meadow allowed a landscaper to “strip mine” plants from its properties for the benefit of a wealthy West Tisbury landowner, Dirk Ziff, in violation of state regulations. The newspaper asserted that the conservation organization had violated the public trust and insinuated that the landowner’s donations and wealth had influenced the foundation.

The May 23 edition of the Gazette carried an editorial, “Restoring the public trust.” The Gazette editorialist said that the foundation “has violated the trust of the families that generously gave their land and it has violated the public trust.”

The resulting public uproar left Sheriff’s Meadow officials reeling and on the defensive. In public and private letters and numerous conversations, foundation officials began a campaign to explain to the organization’s approximately 2,700 members and the public that the meadow supposedly strip mined did not belong to Sheriff’s Meadow; that there was no prior arrangement between the foundation and the landowner; and that the practice of allowing landscape contractors to remove unwanted trees and vegetation in exchange for work was in keeping with long-standing conservation goals and management plans.

Throughout the weeks of reporting, the subtext of the Gazette’s news coverage was a connection between the very private Mr. Ziff and Sheriff’s Meadow, a connection hotly denied by Sheriff’s Meadow leaders who said the identity of the landowner was not a factor in removal or the regulatory missteps that followed.

This week, Sheriff’s Meadow leaders once again reacted sharply to reporting they said characterized the work as having been done secretly and focused on Mr. Ziff, to the detriment of the organization’s reputation.

In a year-end article, published January 2 “Islanders Hold Fast to Hope in Hard Times,” the Gazette wrote that, “Large numbers of trees and plants were taken from two prominent conservation properties owned by the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, for use in landscaping the Lambert’s Cove property of Dirk Ziff.” It added, “It turned out the Ziff landscapers had been taking plants for two years before it was noticed.”

In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Emily Bramhall of Chilmark, Sheriff’s Meadow president, said Mr. Moore had sent a “very clear and very forceful” letter to the Gazette to refute a description of the work that accompanied a photo as “mining.”

“We did not mine. We transplanted, that is perfectly acceptable as part of our management plan,” said Ms. Bramhall. “We knew perfectly well about the Priscilla Hancock; in fact we wrote to all the neighbors about what was going on, and we wrote about it in our 2006 newsletter.”

Noting the focus on Mr. Ziff, she said that, “If those 22 trees had gone to six different places, it would not have been an issue.” Ms. Bramhall said she could not imagine a situation where a landscaper would be asked where the plants were going, because that was not pertinent to the management.

Ms. Bramhall said the Gazette and Sheriff’s Meadow share the same founders, a fact that adds to the sting of the unfair treatment. “I feel really disappointed in the way the Gazette continues to hammer away on this,” said Ms. Bramhall. “The real issue here is about our land management, which I think Natural Heritage truly exonerated and commended.”

“The public needs to know that Sheriff’s Meadow has always been good land stewards and will continue to be,” Ms. Bramhall said. Looking ahead, she said work would continue to create a pitch pine savannah at the Tuthill Preserve. “And it will be beautiful,” said Ms. Bramhall, “but there are going to be times when it does not look beautiful. To keep meadows open or to create pitch pine savannahs, it takes work, and it is not all pretty every step of the way.”

Ms. Bramhall is enthusiastic about Sheriff’s Meadow’s future under Mr. Moore’s leadership. She said, “We have so many great new directions, and it is exciting despite this issue.”