Essay: Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank walks a lengthier paper path

Essay: Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank walks a lengthier paper path

Moshup Beach in Aquinnah. — File photo by Tim Johnson

Whose job is ever static? Whose job never changes?

No one’s. Ask any teacher. Or a nurse, or a farmer. Better yet — ask a mechanic. The lessons Mr. Pitts taught us twelfth-grade boys in auto shop now seem positively medieval.

Ordinarily these changes can be traced to one of two reasons. Technology, primarily (which is why my knowledge of the electrical system in an internal combustion engine is medieval). But changing expectations also play a role: iceberg lettuce is no longer the staple crop it once was.

In 2011, the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank ecologist noticed a change that was ascribable to neither innovation nor shifting public tastes. She — Julie Russell, a certified wildlife biologist employed by the Land Bank since 1999 — found that her daily calendar is much altered from what it had once been.

In her early years here she was a researcher and an author. Many of her weekly 40 hours, especially those in the spring and summer and early autumn, were spent crouched. Peering from various perches in places known to Islanders as Sepiessa Point and North Neck Highlands and the Aquinnah Headlands, she scoped and censused the Island’s flora and fauna.

In so doing, she amassed a remarkable database. The database was large even before her arrival, as the Land Bank has always been lucky to have dedicated staff ecologists. But Ms. Russell expanded not only the central avian and vegetative tallies but added frog surveys, freshwater fish surveys, owl surveys and, in particular, invertebrate surveys. This last category has been especially fruitful, as the Land Bank has inventoried innumerable different invertebrate species, including 16 of which are deemed rare.

Remarkable plants have been found to inhabit Land Bank lands: the southern twayblade orchid, the northern gamma grass, cranefly orchid and wild coffee. Likewise with remarkable habitats — coastal plain pondshores, heathland, scrub oak barrens and others.

Her pen then took up where her spotting-scope left off. She has composed more than 30 of the institution’s management plans, which are the gateways to the Land Bank’s properties. By having scrutinized the preserves and reservations so thoroughly, the Land Bank is able to create trail networks and undertake field restoration projects and allow agriculture and hunting and boating and swimming — all of the uses that Islanders have come to expect from their public conservation trust. Only by knowing these lands so intimately, by knowing their limitations and sensitivities, can the Land Bank have the confidence to invite the public to properly enjoy these properties.

To be sure, she still spends plenty of time straddling rocks and examining bracts under microscopes. Yet she has noticed that, for several years now but most especially this year, she is spending more and more and more time … filling out forms.

Applications. Filings. Notices

As we all know from our personal lives, rule-by-regulation is more and more the norm. But the spread of regulation affects not only individuals but institutions as well.

The statistics are plain. In 2001, Ms. Russell spent under one percent of her time completing forms; in 2011, they occupied 13 percent of her time. To be sure, there are local agencies requiring paperwork: planning boards and conservation commission each have their own laws to uphold. But the significant increase has come from across the sound: the Commonwealth and its various departments.

Open space has long been supervised by both the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and the Department of Environmental Protection. Reports and applications likewise have long been necessary. But in the last decade an additional supervisor has emerged, which is the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.

The Natural Heritage department is not new. But in 2005, it revised its procedures and its oversight on the Vineyard has fundamentally changed the job description of the Land Bank ecologist. All observed rare species must be reported immediately, as must any monitoring work. Precedent to this investigation, the ecologist must obtain a basic collection permit, which is issued annually but only after she demonstrates and documents her qualifications anew. All of this then stitches together to culminate in the applications, sometimes multiple, she must file with the department for the various trails, overlooks, footbridges, farm fields, trailheads and the like that are the substance of the Land Bank’s management plans.

It’s the law. She does it all and does it well. But it increasingly occupies time that could be spent in the field, where she could usefully intensify her understanding of the natural processes at work on the Land Bank’s properties. Perhaps even experiment a little.

Anyone who has ever built a house — or enrolled a child at school, or leased out a cottage, or opened a business — knows already that the Commonwealth, for better or worse, is deeply in all of these spheres. The Land Bank knows it too, in its own sphere, and the changes in its personnel statistics bear this out. Amply.