Soundings: Happy trails

Soundings: Happy trails

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Last month, after my column on the Vineyard Transit Authority was published here, I was struck by the vehemence of one online poster who lambasted our regional bus service as a source of traffic congestion and air pollution and an assault on American free enterprise. He turned out to be the manager of an Island taxi company.

I realize, on reflection, that it can’t be fun to stand by your van watching streams of ferry passengers walk past your proffered $24 ride to Edgartown, choosing the $3 VTA bus instead.

That taxi driver’s lament got me wondering, as I began researching a column on the 20th annual Cross-Island Hike of the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank: who might the Land Bank’s natural enemies be?

Before there was a Land Bank, some real estate brokers saw their incomes threatened by the agency’s two percent fee on most Island property transactions. As it turns out, the Land Bank hasn’t hurt the brokers, so you won’t find many enemies there.

But, if you’re the owner of property that was an exclusive enclave until the Land Bank swooped in to give the public access, you can be doubly resentful. First, because you fear a threat to the enjoyment of a place you’ve had to yourself. Second, because this prospect forces you to admit that you’re not the egalitarian lover of humanity you like to think you are.

So, here’s my guess: today’s natural enemies of the Land Bank are abutters who have a high opinion of their own liberal principles and morality, but are confronted with an aspect of themselves they’d rather not acknowledge when the Land Bank moves in.

The rationalizations for abutters’ exclusionary impulses can be pretty creative. James Lengyel, director of the Land Bank since 1989, says the agency hears protestations of property exceptionalism all the time: “Oh, this property is so unique, it’s different from anything you’ve ever managed before, and it can’t handle the public use.”

But the Land Bank, which has been lauded by the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs for its “long tradition of high-quality stewardship on the Vineyard,” hasn’t made many missteps with the 3,000 acres in its care.

On Saturday, June 2, as rains of Tropical Storm Beryl were buffeting the Vineyard, more than two dozen people convened early at Wilfrid’s Pond Preserve in Tisbury for the Land Bank’s 20th annual Cross-Island Hike. Mr. Lengyel has walked in every one since the event’s founding in 1993; this year he was the “caboose” hiker, trailing the pack to be sure no one was left behind on the 18-mile trek to Katama.

In 1993, he recalls, “We had learned that National Trails Day was being promoted. Conservation organizations were being encouraged to come up with events. And the logical event to hold was some sort of litter clean-up or path tune-up.

“But what we wanted was to do two things: to encourage people to experience the beauty of the Island and to see how things stitched together. John Potter, our land superintendent at the time, said that in Weston, where he grew up, every year there was a cross-town hike. We said, why don’t we have a cross-Island hike? And that was that.”

Bill Veno, senior planner at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and trails guru for the Land Bank (which pays one quarter of his salary), has been organizing and leading the Cross-Island Hike for 15 of its 20 years. In recent years, he’s planned walks that begin where the previous year’s hike concluded.

Finding new cross-Island routes isn’t terribly hard. The Land Bank has some 130 miles of trails in its care when you include the town paths, easements, and ancient ways it also maintains across the Island.

The Land Bank published a new map a few weeks ago, and it’s worth asking for at the agency’s Edgartown office (or your local library), because it includes lots of outdoor opportunities not listed on the 2008 edition. One of them is Felix Neck Preserve, 25 acres adjoining the eponymous wildlife sanctuary, which the Land Bank bought in 2003 but didn’t open for public enjoyment until this year.

My wife and I discovered Felix Neck Preserve two months ago, on a walk along the Boulevard in Edgartown. The Land Bank had quietly taken down the No Trespassing signs, opening the trails without fanfare or press releases. It turns out this approach to opening properties is a Land Bank policy, not an accident.

“We very seldom announce the opening of a property,” says Mr. Lengyel. “We just let it be discovered.

“There’s a practical consideration – we want people to slowly come to understand the availability of these properties. But the larger consideration is the thrill of stumbling across something, seeing that you’re welcomed, seeing that it’s organized, but still just finding it serendipitously.”

It’s not like the Land Bank is keeping its treasures secret. The agency’s map is published by the thousands and is widely available. But still, one defining quality of Land Bank properties is that you have to seek them out. And when you do, you’ll be richly rewarded.

“The Land Bank tries not to have very many drive-in experiences,” Mr. Lengyel says. “You have to want to achieve them.”

So here’s my prescription for relief from the crowds and traffic of the next four months: Pick up a Land Bank map, pack a bottle of water and head for the hills, at Tiasquam Valley Reservation in Chilmark or Wompesket Preserve in West Tisbury, at Quammox Preserve in Edgartown or Pecoy Point Preserve in Oak Bluffs. You might walk for two hours and meet only a couple of other hikers. You’ll definitely find the place as beautiful as its name.

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