About a dozen dogs and their owners recently gathered at Trade Wind Fields Preserve off County Road in Oak Bluffs to hear Matthew Dix, Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank foreman, describe the ecological damage the 71.8-acre parcel has sustained from years of increased dog walking traffic off marked trails and what the Land Bank is attempting to do to curtail it.
As their canine counterparts cavorted in the parking lot at the meeting held October 28, it was the dog owners who did the growling. Mr. Dix had barely finished introducing himself when he was beset with complaints about the bright green DO NOT ENTER signs that he’d installed at various trailheads, the message sometimes reinforced with a felled pitch pine.
“Who’s saying there’s a problem?” Jack Krowski of Oak Bluffs said. “This puts a terrible taste in my mouth. I’ve been coming here for years. A lot of us come here for quiet enjoyment and there’s never been any problem. This is a form of bullying. I just bought a house near here, and I paid $4,000 [to the Land Bank]. Now you’re trying to take this away?”
“If I didn’t have this place I’d move off the Island, that’s how important it is to me,” Marianne Goldsmith said.
Mr. Dix, a 24-year employee of the Land Bank and veteran of many heated land use meetings, explained, “We’re not trying to take anything away from anybody. We’re trying to re-establish a set of trails that were here from the beginning.” Mr. Dix said the goal is to get people and their pooches to stick to the two miles of Land Bank trails that ring the property, and to deter people from crossing the unplanned trails that have evolved over time, several of which bisect the runway and the taxiway of the grass airstrip, and traverse through rare plants and rare insect habitat.
Trade Wind is a sandplain grassland, a habitat that is dwindling on the Island as tree growth expands. “It’s a mosaic, it’s grass and shrub and heath land, a classic example of a sandplain,” Julie Russell, Land Bank ecologist, told The Times. “The wind and salt in the air, and the continued mowing over the years to keep it as an airstrip, have kept the pitch pines and oaks from taking over. I work with a lot of different properties and I can count on one hand the places where I can find some of these rare plants.”
Ms. Russell said the rare grasses include the rarest strain of sand plain blue-eyed grass, which is not actually a grass but part of the Iris family and classified as endangered by the National Heritage Endangered Species program (NHES). Other wildlife of concern is purple needle grass, considered threatened by the NHES, and the purple tiger beetle, which is listed as a species of special concern by the NHES. There were three patches of purple needle grass, until one was obliterated by an improvised trail.
Forging an old path
Mr. Dix took responsibility for the current conundrum. “It’s my fault for not stopping this 15 years ago when it really started to snowball,” he told The Times. “There weren’t many dogs here until around 1996, maybe 20 people a day. Now, Trade Wind is by far the most used Land Bank property on a year-round basis.”
The Land Bank paid $2.75 million for the Trade Wind property in 1989, deconstructing the plans of developers Ed Jigarjian and Joe Esco, who intended to build 32 condos, a clubhouse with indoor pool, tennis courts, and 12 2,500-square-feet homes. Over the years, Trade Wind has become so popular with dog owners it’s become known as “the dog park” in Island argot. According to Oak Bluffs land bank commissioner Priscilla Sylvia, even first responders refer to Trade Wind as “the dog park.”
Ms. Sylvia expressed similar concerns about the direction of Trade Wind. “The Land Bank purchased a globally rare sand plain that feeds directly into the Farm Neck well,” she told The Times. “I think that there is overuse by good meaning people. I’m hoping we can coexist. This is a very important piece of land. We need to protect it at all costs.”
Over the years, Mr. Dix has tried various signage to inform the public and to protect the property. Previous signs that gently asked people not to cross, with a detailed explanation, were ineffective. The recently installed “DO NOT ENTER” signs inflamed more than they informed. It was the reaction to these signs, which one dog owner referred to as “scolding,” that prompted Mr. Dix to initiate the current series of informational sessions.
“We’ve tried the middle ground with signage, but it’s clearly not working,” he said. “We considered a wide range of solutions, including fencing, but we don’t want to do that. We want the public to use it, we’re just asking to stay on the trail system.”
A common refrain Mr. Dix has heard is that a twomile loop is too long for elderly dog walkers. “I’m 76, sometimes it’s okay for me to walk the whole thing, sometimes I’m too tired and I have to cross over,” Ms. Goldsmith said. “I approve of much of what you’re doing. I don’t like your argument that if you let us cross one place, then we’ll take advantage, like we’re all natural transgressors. Just give us two or three shortcuts.”
Sara Barnes suggested that Mr. Dix enlist dog walkers to help repair the sandplain. “We can help with the reseeding in the spring,” she said. “I know a lot of us would be willing to help. But please take those signs down, they’re really annoying.”
A few days after the October 28 information session, less combative signs were installed that read, “Please stay on marked trail.”
Mr. Dix said the informational sessions have been productive in other ways. “I like the idea of forming an advisory committee of dog walkers,” he said. “I learned there’s a willingness to compromise and it’s good to know some people are willing to help us plant grasses and self-police the place.”
The biggest takeaway, according to Mr. Dix, is that as Trade Wind has grown into an Island-wide dog park, a tightly knit family of dog owners has grown along with it. “We definitely underestimated the social value this place has for so many people,” he said.
Over the past 20 years, Trade Wind has become a defacto town square where dogs and humans socialize on a daily basis. It’s an informal group, but tight enough to have its own Facebook page, with posts about dogs for adoption, health updates on dogs and owners, disapproval for the new Land Bank signs, and considerably more disapproval for whomever tore one of them down.
A jar of dog biscuits is taped to a tree at each trailhead and kept stocked by anonymous biscuit fairies. Lawn furniture, recently and mysteriously donated, also sits at the trailhead. Mr. Dix inflamed the dog walking constituency when he removed the chairs the previous week. He admitted it was a mistake, and they were put back within 48 hours. This past Monday, the late afternoon regulars, many of whom are sharing Thanksgiving together, occupied the chairs while their dogs romped en masse.
“We really appreciate the Land Bank for letting us come here with our dogs,” Vasha Brunelle of Vineyard Haven said. “This is the highlight of the day for many of us.”
“This is one of the best dog parks anywhere,” Phil Pankiewicz of Vineyard Haven said, petting his dog, Daisy. “We’re willing to work with the Land Bank. But they have to realize, a lot of seniors walk out here and they can’t do a two mile loop. So let us keep two of the paths, that’s all.”
Mr. Pankiewicz recently suffered a heart attack when he was driving to Trade Wind with Daisy. He drove himself to the hospital and he was quickly airlifted to a hospital on the Cape, with Daisy waiting in the car. Someone from Trade Wind, he’s still not sure who, got the word to a neighbor who took care of Daisy until Mr. Pankiewicz returned to the Island.
“We look out for each other,” Nancy Blank of Oak Bluffs told The Times. “If we don’t see one of the regulars, we’ll check and see if they’re okay. We’ve helped each other through illnesses, housing crises, all kinds of things. We’re all brought together by our dogs, and we love this place.”
“We live for this place,” Mr. Pankiewicz said, as he headed into the gloaming of a cold November day, with Daisy following close behind.
Mr. Dix will host additional information sessions on Thursday, Nov. 13, at 4 pm and on Monday, Nov. 17, at 12 noon, at the Trade Wind parking lot on County Road. The Land Bank management plan for Trade Wind Fields is available at www.mvlandbank.com.