Greening Martha

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Island residents and visitors enjoy clean ocean waters and unspoiled beaches like Lucy Vincent Beach. But for how long? — File photo by Susan Safford

Ted Danson’s life has included two great passions.

His first is well-known. As an award-winning lead and cast member, he has appeared on many well-loved television programs and in popular films that include CSI, Bored to Death, Damages, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Becker, Cheers, 3 Men and a Baby, The Onion Field, Body Heat and much more.

His second passion is less well-known: saving the world’s oceans.

Mr. Danson was the founder of the American Oceans Campaign in 1987, now part of the world’s largest international ocean advocacy group, Oceana, on which he is a board member. He is also the author of “Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them.” He has spent more than 20 years bringing attention to the challenges that face our oceans, today.

Mr. Danson and wife, Mary Steenburgen, are also longtime Island seasonal residents. During breaks in their hectic acting and philanthropic lives, they escape to their Chilmark getaway home. This summer, the couple helped the Vineyard Playhouse raise over $100,000, and they continue to be very active in the Possible Dreams Auction, the fundraiser for Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.

We spoke by telephone for almost two hours as Mr. Danson drove along the Pacific Coast Highway from the set of CSI in Los Angeles to his home in Ojai, California. An edited and condensed version of the interview follows.

When you founded the American Oceans Campaign in 1987, what was the prevailing reason and mission?

It starts with my family. My father was a scientist, the director of a museum and research center outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. I grew up with a sense of there is a lot that has come before us and a lot that will come after us. So, it is important that we act as stewards when we are here. Plus, my mother was a churchgoer and a spiritual person. These — science, stewardship and spirituality — are the cornerstones of what I believe in: let science lead the way, but you need the sense of spirituality, and that we are all in this together, and we all have an impact on each other.

So acting was a natural outlet for this sense of stewardship and spirituality?

Ha. Well no, then yes. Acting, and Cheers, propelled me into the world of celebrity. I started to think that I need to be responsible with all that came with being famous. Plus, it was timing. When I was on Cheers, I moved into a neighborhood in Santa Monica where there was a local fight with Occidental Petroleum. They were planning on slant drilling for oil of Will Rodgers State Beach and I went to a meeting. There I met Robert Sulnick who was an environmental lawyer and activist. One thing led to another, we worked together and ultimately stopped the oil wells from being drilled in Santa Monica. We also became friends and decided to see what else we could accomplish together. So we started an organization to protect the oceans. That is, more or less, how the American Oceans Campaign came to be.

At the time, what was the prevailing attitude towards environmental conservation?

But, when we started, there wasn’t a lot of attention being paid to the oceans. It was hard but incredibly rewarding. We were able to get more people to pay attention. We were a small team, but we quickly became respected and were able to make some real progress. I was the spokesperson, the chief fundraiser. I was always the actor standing next to the scientist or lawyer saying, “thank you for paying attention, now please listen to this expert who has something important to say.” Then, after about 15 to 20 years, we ended up merging with a number of other nonprofits into Oceana, which become the largest international ocean advocacy group in the world. To be honest, I was a little burned out and really looking for an exit at that point. But Oceana is such an incredible force for good that it reinvigorated me and I’ve continued to work hard for them and the oceans.

Was the early support you received for the American Oceans Campaign bipartisan or primarily Democratic?

Back then it was bipartisan. Several Republicans, including Senator Chaffee (R, Rhode Island) stood up with us. Plus, we received a tremendous amount of encouragement from the congressional delegation from California at that time. Barbara Boxer, George Miller, and Leon Panetta really supported us. Today Oceana is bipartisan as well. If this were a partisan issue we would be dead in the water. Thankfully it’s not. A lot of times you will find bipartisan support for ocean issues. George W. Bush did an amazing amount of good work for the ocean, putting aside huge areas in Hawaii into marine protected areas. And, the conservative President of Chile, Sebastián Piñ;era (with a lot of help from Oceana) has created one of the world’s largest no-take zones close to Easter Island (by a seamount chain called Salas y Gómez).

As you said, in 2001, the American Ocean’s Campaign merged into an organization called Oceana. What is the principal mission of Oceana?

Oceana is focused on winning policy change that will have a real impact on the oceans. We are campaign-driven and address overfishing, bycatch, habitat destruction, offshore drilling, and pollution. You might ask, what’s the most important thing that is stressing our oceans? It’s not over-pollution, as many of us think. It’s overfishing. A huge number of the world’s fisheries have collapsed and we are at a tipping point where things could irreversibly collapse if we don’t change how we manage the oceans.

What is a specific policy that needs to be addressed right now?

We need to limit bycatch. Bycatch is the unintended catch of commercial fishing activities that often result in huge amounts of fish and other ocean life being thrown back, dead or dying. Tons of fish are wasted and thousands of marine mammals, sea turtles, sharks, and sea birds are injured or killed every year as bycatch. Enormous trawl nets scoop up virtually everything in their path and immature and adult fish, as well as sea turtles, marine mammals, and sharks are captured on the 1.4 billion baited hooks set in longline fisheries every year.

These super trawlers drag the size of the United States every year.

Under existing laws, the U.S. government is required to reduce bycatch and the deaths of the unintentionally captured fish, birds and animals. But the steps taken by the National Marine Fisheries Service — the federal agency responsible for the management of U.S. fisheries — have been grossly inadequate. So, Oceana is calling on the federal government to address bycatch as is required under existing law and immediately implement three critical measures to end wasteful fishing practices — count, cap, and control.

How have you been successful in getting this message out?

By making it relevant to people’s lives. And, it is. Today we are often talking about is world hunger, biodiversity, and more. Once people realize how they are connected to the oceans, they are willing to listen.

Estimates from the United Nations have the global population exceeding 9 billion in 2050. Can fish farming feed a world of 9 billion?

Fish farming is not the answer. Primarily because the fish we farm in the sea — like salmon and tuna — eat other fish. So fish farms feed the farmed fish lots of ground-up little fish. It takes, for example, as much as four pounds of wild small fish to create one pound of farmed salmon. So, you actually lose protein and accelerate overfishing with this kind of fish farming. The better solution is to simply manage our world’s wild fisheries better because there is a huge payoff in doing this.

A recent study in Science found that if we put in place better management, we can increase the amount of wild fish by 40 percent. Oceana has estimated that, if we put in place real science-based fisheries management, we could feed 700 million a healthy seafood meal every day. This is so important because close to a billion people already depend on wild seafood as a primary source of animal protein. And, wild fish can help bridge the gap for the estimated two billion additional people projected to be on earth by 2050. Plus, eating seafood instead of red meat helps to reduce obesity, cancer, and heart disease. And it has less impact on our climatebecause it doesn’t create methane and other climate related gases. Don’t get me started!

With your connections to Martha’s Vineyard and New York City, what are your views of Cape Wind or East River tidal turbines?

Overall I think both are good. I would rather be looking at wind turbines than an oil rig any day and if something goes wrong with your wind turbine it makes a big splash as opposed to a horrendous oil spill. I know it’s tricky, and a lot of my friends are against it, but I think the alternative is worse. Oceana’s team of scientists have found that the wind energy potential off the Atlantic Coast is so great it could generate about 30 percent more electricity than offshore oil and gas in the same area.

If business as usual continues, will we all be ordering jellyfish soup for dinner?

It may be over-dramatic to say that, but yeah, it is. This is why you need to have sustainable smart fisheries. We need to really manage and benefit from our marine ecosystem. Overfish the top of the food chain — the sharks, tuna, and swordfish — and what is directly below them begins to flourish. Soon all we will have are jellyfish.

As appetizing as that sounds, what can people do to prevent this from happening?

This sounds self-serving, but there is one solution I can offer everyone. It’s Oceana, a science-based organization that changes policy and gets things done. You don’t need to send money, though we’ll put it to good use, you can contribute your voice. It is very hard for you and me, people in their everyday crazy busy crammed life to feel like they can make a difference, but they can. Go on Oceana.org and become a Wavemaker. Sign up, check it out. With the click of your finger you can become an ocean advocate and make a huge difference around the world. We have changed policy because of you, so please check Oceana.org and become an international ocean advocate.

Closing line, Mr. Danson?

It’s probably more fun to play the oil executive on camera, but I’d rather be the environmental activist in real life. We don’t have to eat jellyfish soup, this could be changed. In our lifetime this could be changed and that’s exciting.

Tyler Alten has summered in Edgartown his entire life. His great grandparents, Reuben and Virginia Perin, first came with their friends, Brom and Allie Ault, in 1932 and stayed at what was formerly the Daggett House. He and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Mr. Alten works for an energy and sustainability consulting firm in the New York/NJ area and is completing his Masters degree in Sustainability Management from Columbia University. This interview followed an assignment in a science journalism and communications class.

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Goats and sheep are being used to control fields at Waskosim's Rock in Chilmark. — Photo courtesy of Land Bank

Three goats have a new job this summer. They are part of a Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF) land management plan for the Cedar Tree Neck sanctuary in West Tisbury.

In June, Rebecca Gilbert and her husband, Randy Ben David, owners of Native Earth Teaching Farm in Chilmark, hired out three billy goats to graze on the remote property that juts into Vineyard Sound. Kristen Fauteux, SMF director of stewardship, put the plan in place as part of her graduate research project at Antioch University New England. Ms. Fauteux said the goal of the project is to reduce bittersweet, and see if goats make sense as a land management alternative.

SMF rents the goats from Ms. Gilbert at a discounted rate of about $100 a month. Ms. Fauteux wants to see what the goats eat, when, where, and how much. The results of the project will include an analysis of cost-effectiveness, and the efficiency of the animals for managing a certain amount of acres per day.

Ms. Fauteux and Ms. Gilbert have discussed using animals for land management for a couple of years. When the timing was right, Ms. Fauteux said, the goats were on the move.

“It’s going really well,” Ms. Fauteux said about the project. “But I think we need more goats.”

The goats eat lots of bittersweet, the target species for the project, but the goats may also eat other native plants like poison ivy. Ms. Fauteux said the experiment is taking place on about four acres of land at Cedar Tree Neck, but she doubts the goats will eat nearly that much.

The land used to be all grass and open views, Ms. Fauteux said. She said using animals to manage the land made sense.

“It would’ve been difficult or nearly impossible to get a tractor there,” she said. “It’s isolated, connected by beach on either side.”

Doing what they do

Ms. Gilbert, who has used animals for land management for more than 20 years, said goats and pigs love to eat. They even enjoy munching on poison ivy.

This is the first time Ms. Gilbert has participated in an academic research project, but she isn’t unfamiliar with the topic of land management and animals.

“We have a lot of anecdotal evidence, like one year we put pigs here and they dug up 40 trees,” she said. “We understand what they do but to translate to people who are not farmers, it helps to have statistics to back them up.”

She can’t tell exactly what the goats will eat and the amount of acres they will graze in how many weeks, but she and Mr. Ben David know from experience that the animals provide effective land management.

“They could take longer than a machine, but in another way, it’s less work, because for the animals, it’s what they want to do,” she said. “It really comes naturally to them, and you don’t really have to train them.”

Compared to other forms of land management, like tractors or prescribed burns, animals simply can’t be “turned off.”

“Tractors you can put away in the winter, but you still have to keep feeding the animals,” she said.

Picky eaters

SMF isn’t the only conservation organization on the Island that has turned to animals for land management.

The FARM Institute and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank teamed up earlier this year to bring goats and sheep to Waskosim’s Rock, a Land Bank property in Chilmark.

Land Bank ecologist Julie Russell is using the animals to manage a piece of land that provides habitat for the Eastern box turtle, listed as a species of special concern. She said there are about eight box turtles at Waskosim’s Rock, and it is not uncommon to spot one on the trail.

The box turtles live to be around 70 to 100 years old, and can stay within a small area year to year, or stray farther distances. Typically, male box turtles stay in a 12-acre area, and females stay in about a six-acre area, she said. The turtles tend to breed in the summer, and live the rest of the year in the woods.

“Waskosim’s Rock is classic, it has everything they need from well-drained soils, edges of a pond, to open area,” she added.

The area is mowed back in the summer, but the process is tedious in order not to harm the box turtles.

“We have to cut with a weed-whacker to make sure it is low enough so when someone is walking in front of the tractor they can see the box turtle and move it out of the way,” she said. “You don’t want to run them over with the blade or tire. Even if the blade is set higher, it doesn’t mean you can’t run it over with the tire.”

The terrain includes a noticeable amount of oak sprouts and other woody shrubs, along with bittersweet and honey suckle. The project will hopefully reduce the woody vegetation, she said.

Matthew Dix, Land Bank foreman and owner of North Tabor Farm, came up with the idea to manage the land using animals.

“We thought, how can we do this without having our entire staff maintaining the goats,” Ms. Russell said. “So we got a herder, talked to the Farm Institute, and put out a bid proposal.”

About seven to nine goats were brought to the Farm Institute earlier this year and a two-year contract for land management was signed.

Several weeks after the goats were brought to Waskosim’s Rock, Ms. Russell said they added about seven to nine sheep to the group to help eat more of the vegetation.

Ms. Russell said she is unsure how cost-effective using animals will be to manage the land, but she expects to know in the next year or so.

The sheep and goats will only be used during the summer season, and will remain at the Farm Institute during parts of the fall, winter, and potentially, some of spring.

“For being not picky eaters, they’re picky,” she said with a laugh.

Ms. Russell discovered goats tend to eat more when the sun goes down. But sheep don’t seem to mind.

“They’re [sheep] out eating the good stuff, the herbaceous plants, some of the more tender plants that are easier to digest and taste better. Then they go to the woody stuff,” she said. “The goats are left with leftovers, which is woody stuff, and they are more likely to eat it.”

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A report on the health and well-being of Tisbury Great Pond released last month follows years of bureaucratic wrangling over costs. It is the long-awaited result of a study that began in 2005. The study has confirmed low but significant nitrogen levels in one of Martha’s Vineyard’s largest estuary systems.

Tisbury Great Pond — a 700-acre coastal salt pond that straddles the boundary between Chilmark to the west and West Tisbury to the east — is one of several Island ponds that were subjects of the state-wide study of coastal water bodies comprised in the Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP), a collaboration between the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

“The overall goal of the Massachusetts Estuaries Project is to provide the MassDEP and municipalities with technical guidance to support policies on nitrogen loading to embayments,” the study said.

Excessive nitrogen levels have become a common contributor to the decay of coastal ponds across the Island. “Tisbury Great Pond is in better shape than others,” Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) water resources planner Sheri Caseau said this week. “But there’s definitely a need for the study. When the algae grows and then dies, it smothers everything underneath it, and this can cause a major die-off.”

According to the report, “… nutrient related water quality decline represents one of the most serious threats to the ecological health of the near shore coastal waters.”

Tisbury Great Pond supports a healthy population of wild oysters and local fauna, whose existence is compromised if septic wastewater and fertilizer runoff, the prime contributors of nitrogen buildup, continue to be overlooked, Ms. Caseau said.

“Unfortunately, almost all of the estuarine reaches within the Tisbury Great Pond system are near or beyond their ability to assimilate additional nutrients without impacting their ecological health,” the study concluded.

An increase in nitrogen stimulates algae growth, which leads to low levels of oxygen and poor water quality, the 150-page analysis found. The result is, “The loss of fisheries habitat, eelgrass beds, and a general disruption of benthic communities and the food chain, which they support.”

The study added that there is a critical need for “state-of-the-art approaches for evaluating and restoring nitrogen sensitive and impaired embayments.”

About time

While the state picked up half the cost of the report, Chilmark and West Tisbury taxpayers shelled out $80,000.

Although voters approved funding over the course of several annual town meetings, town officials criticized the time taken to produce the report. Disputes between DEP and UMass over rights to the study furthered officials’ skepticism.

“The MEP has not shown themselves to be well administered; it has been a slow, bureaucratic process that has been mired in foolish debate between UMass and the state, with no consideration of the towns,” Chilmark selectman Warren Doty said in 2011. “We authorized them [for funding] three years in a row, and it took them five years before they even came to get their money.”

In a telephone conversation last week, hydrologist Roland Samimy, technical coordinator for MEP, attributed the tardiness of the MEP’s report to what he said was the lack of a regional approach on behalf of the Island towns’ elected officials to see the project through.

“The towns on the Vineyard are not coordinated when it comes to water monitoring basics,” Mr. Samimy said. “It’s high time that we try and develop an Island-wide water monitoring program, because at the end of the day, all you end up with is a patchwork quilt of water monitoring, and it doesn’t become as useful.”

Despite the delays, Mr. Samimy said the study may still be used in an effective way. “The towns can now use it to manage the (nitrogen) loads to the estuary, before they get too high.”

Mixed views

At a selectmen’s meeting in March, Kent Healy of West Tisbury, a well-known civil engineer and longtime pond steward, expressed concern for what he considered to be a significant lack of evidence presented in the draft report.

“The MEP is in the nitrogen business,” Mr. Healy said. “And that’s what they measured. I’m not a not a nitrogen person, I’m a groundwater person, but there are major flaws presented in this study, problems that I consider to be serious errors.”

In a phone interview last week about the final report, Mr. Healy, who has been monitoring the groundwater in and about Tisbury Great Pond for more than 30 years, said, “Any proposal to reduce the level of nitrogen must be based on valid measurements and calculations. But they don’t measure the content of groundwater as it enters Tisbury Great Pond. Based on that alone, their [MEP’s] findings are inaccurate.”

Not everyone is critical of the MEP studies, which include the Squibnocket/Menemsha ponds system.

Wendy Weldon, co-chairman of the Squibnocket Pond Advisory Committee, has endorsed the MEP’s study since it’s inception.

“People worried about the state coming in, but it’s for that reason that I support it,” Ms. Weldon said. “It will help us make decisions down the road on how to manage our ponds that are loaded with nitrogen.”

How conclusive is the report?

“It’s a constant work in progress, to some extent it’s always a constant work in progress,” Mr. Samimy said.

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Common terns are often found on Norton Point beach. — Photo courtesy of TTOR

In what has become an annual rite of summer, The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR) have begun closing off access for over-sand vehicles (OSV) to sections of Chappaquiddick beach to protect newly hatched least tern and piping plover chicks.

If the chicks survive a natural gauntlet that includes predation by crows, gulls, skunks, and weather, they should be able to fly in about six weeks and the beach closures will end.

Closures at the height of the busy summer season are forced by the need to comply with state and federal laws designed to protect several bird species. However, one change from recent years is a new degree of flexibility on the part of state and federal wildlife officials that could allow Cape Poge Wildlife Preserve to remain open to OSVs.

TTOR owns or manages approximately 15 miles of over-sand vehicle trails accessible with a permit. From Katama to Cape Poge gut at the end of Chappaquiddick, vehicle beach trails give residents and visitors access to uncrowded fishing, clamming, and picnicking spots, and a beach experience that is unique to the Vineyard.

State guidelines say that when chicks are on a barrier beach, managers have to draw a line through where the chicks are located and close shoreline to shoreline, and provide a buffer 100 yards up and down the beach. No vehicles are allowed near that zone, which moves with the chicks.

The presence of a physical barrier, for example a steep dune face or heavy vegetation, or a determination that there is a lack of foraging habitat on one shoreline, are the only mitigating factors in the application of that blanket rule. In those situations, TTOR may be allowed to detour vehicles where alternate shoreline trails exist.

Those determinations have significant implications for TTOR, and beach-goers who enjoy Chappy properties, and generate the sticker income that helps support the private conservation trust.

Off-road vehicle users currently can only access East Beach and Leland Beach at the Dike Bridge. Once across they may turn right and use an inner or outer trail traveling south along Leland Beach to reach Wasque Point, a popular fishing spot. Or they may turn left and travel north along a single trail that runs parallel to East Beach and connects to an inner and outer trail leading to the 516-acre Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge.

In 2011, Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife zoologist Scott Melvin made a new determination that the existing dunes and grass north of Dike Bridge did not provide a sufficient physical barrier between the sole Cape Poge vehicle access trail and East Beach nesting sites. That determination created a choke point in the TTOR trail system. When chicks were present on East Beach north of Dike Bridge the shoreline to shoreline rule was enforced and access to Cape Poge was lost.

Recently, Mr. Melvin reviewed a draft TTOR conservation plan for the management of endangered shorebirds on Chappaquiddick. Although the draft plan is still under review by Mass Wildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mr. Melvin suggested a review of the bayside conditions in the potential “choke points” adjacent to the Dike Bridge on Chappy, according to TTOR.

“Under this new determination, Dr. Melvin and the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species Biologist Susi von Oettingen have agreed to exclude up to 5,000 feet of the Leland Beach bayside trail and approximately half of the bayside trail north of the Dike Bridge from consideration as suitable foraging habitat for adults and chicks due to the presence of large amounts of salt marsh or other impassable terrain,” TTOR said in a press release dated June 7.

“This is a huge step forward for us,” Chris Kennedy, TTOR Martha’s Vineyard superintendent said in a telephone conversation Friday. “And a tip of the hat to state and federal wildlife. If they hadn’t come down with that determination, frankly, all of Leland Beach would be closed right now and we would be looking at a complete closure of Cape Poge Wildllife Refuge, probably in the next week of so. I have to give credit to Scott Melvin. He has taken a lot of heat for guidelines over the years, but he and Susi von Oettingen, his counterpart on the federal level, have bent over backwards to work with the Trustees to make that determination that allows us to detour traffic around those shorebird chicks.”

Mr. Kennedy was quick to point out that the new guidelines have limited effect. They only apply to that specific area.

For example, if chicks are present on Norton Point Beach, the barrier that separates the Atlantic from Katama Bay, the shoreline to shoreline closure will be required.

New rules will also limit the ability of beach-goers to bring their dogs to the beach on a leash or in a vehicle.

The Trustees have seasonally prohibited dogs on certain beaches that include the Gut, portions of Norton Point Beach where shorebirds are nesting, and all of Leland Beach. Dogs are not allowed on leash or in vehicles in these areas from May 1 until mid-August or until such time as all nesting and migrating shorebirds have left the beaches, TTOR said in a press release.

Mr. Kennedy said the flexibility on the part of state and federal wildlife officials is encouraging and likely a result of strong efforts to protect shorebirds and the resulting increase in numbers.

Irrespective, Mr. Kennedy said, “The responsibility lies with The Trustees to protect these birds.”

As of Monday, Mr. Kennedy reported two groups of plover chicks at the Gut, one unhatched plover nest at the Cape Poge “elbow,” two nests and one group of plover chicks on East Beach north of the Dike Bridge, two plover nests on Leland Beach and one plover nest and two groups of plover chicks on Norton Point beach.

“As of today we have a small OSV closure at the Gut and approximately 1 mile of Norton Point beach closed to vehicles on the eastern end of Norton Point beach,” he said. “Finally, we estimate we have approximately 300 Common tern nests at Norton Point beach.”

He added, “All of this can change in a heartbeat.”

For more information or current beach closures, call 508-627-8390 or www.trustees.org.

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Areas shown in yellow would be flooded by a sea level increase of 1 meter (3 feet, 3 inches), according to the VCS presentation. Areas shown in red would be inundated by an additional 1 meter of sea level rise. — Photo by Vineyard Conservation Society

Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) board member Phil Henderson says that, soon after the end of the century, Beach Road from the drawbridge to Five Corners in Vineyard Haven will be flooded and that harbor waters in Oak Bluffs could expand across East Chop Drive — if ocean levels due to forecast global warming continue to rise.

Mr. Henderson will describe these and other possible impacts of sea level rise on Martha’s Vineyard in a presentation Thursday night at the All-Island selectmen’s meeting at 7 pm at the Tisbury Senior Center.

Mr. Henderson, a former VCS president, put the presentation together as part of the organization’s “Rising Seas Awareness Project.” He will be joined by Stephen McKenna, Cape Cod and Islands Regional Coordinator for the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM).

The presentation illustrates the sea level rise predicted for Martha’s Vineyard based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “high” forecast for greenhouse gas emissions. Mr. Henderson also culled information from several other studies, including one the state did about a year ago that focuses on the Massachusetts coastline.

Mr. Henderson said the VCS board’s education and public advocacy committee launched the awareness project this year out of concern that information about the sea level forecasts for Martha’s Vineyard is not getting enough attention.

The presentation includes maps that illustrate the impact of a sea level increase from one to two meters in familiar areas of Martha’s Vineyard.

“This is an educational effort, in the hope that the all-Island selectmen, the towns and others will begin a long-term conversation about this,” said Mr. Henderson, a retired urban and regional planner. “We are very pleased the state has been proactive, and we hope that our contributions on Thursday evening will help Vineyarders become better informed.”

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Fishing for Energy is designed to help fishermen discard of old and unwanted gear. — Photo by Susan Safford

Martha’s Vineyard fishermen will have an opportunity to dispose of worn-out and discarded fishing gear as part of the Fishing for Energy program, funded through a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and private businesses.

The program will provide drop off bins at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional Refuse District for one month, from February 27 until March 27. Fishermen will be asked to leave gear to be disposed outside the bins so that it can be properly sorted by refuse district employees.

Lynn Fraker of Vineyard Haven, a member of the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association, sought the grant to make the project possible.

Ms. Fraker is working with Fishing for Energy program officials, Bruno’s Waste Management and Don Hatch, district manager of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional Refuse District to set up a drop-off spot for the old equipment.

Ms. Fraker said that too much of the old gear ends up either being dumped off of boats or lost at sea when the gear fails, adding to the pollution of our waters.

She added that disposal rates often cause fisherman to let the old gear pile up in back yards if they haven’t found other ways to get ride of it.

Mr. Hatch told the Times that the Refuse District is ready to go. He said that the District will monitor the project to keep the gear separated from other trash but that it should not significantly change his work load.

The free program will collect fishing gear, primarily line, nets, and old pots. Buoys and fiberglass will not be accepted at this time. The program is designed to encourage fishermen to pick up old gear they run across at sea and bring it ashore for disposal, according to Ms. Hofmann.

Acceptable gear includes, nets (nylon, polypropylene, monofilament), as dry as possible with organic debris removed, fishing gear rigging (trawl dragger cookies, cans, rollers, chain), traps/pots (wood, vinyl-coated wire) crushed with bricks removed, line (nylon, polypropylene) as tightly coiled as possible.

Derelict fishing gear is one of the major types of debris that impacts the marine environment today, according the Fishing for Energy website. Abandoned nets and other types of gear can continue to fish indefinitely, known as “ghostfishing,” entangling and potentially killing marine life, smothering habitat, and endangering navigation.

Fishing for Energy is a partnership between the NOAA Marine Debris Program, NFWF, Covanta – SEMASS (the municipal waste combustor facility in Rochester where solid waste from the Island is processed), and Schnitzer Steel. Partnerships are formed with ports, cities, marinas, and fishermen’s cooperatives, as appropriate, to reach out to fishermen, provide disposal facilities, and advertise the project.

There are similar projects in other parts of the country, NFWF manager of marine conservation Erin Hofmann said in a telephone conversation from her office in Washington, D.C. The program placed the first bins in 2008 and since then has expanded to 39 ports across the country. To date, close to two million pounds of gear have been collected, including lobster and crab pots, nets, dredges, and buoys, according to a press release.

The Fishing for Energy program is modeled on a successful multi-partner project in Hawaii. It provides the fishing community a way to become more actively involved in addressing existing derelict fishing gear by giving them a place to dispose of derelict gear they come across while on the water.

Once removed from the environment, the gear will be transported to the nearest Covanta Energy-from-Waste facility and recycled or burned and converted to energy. Approximately one ton of derelict nets can equal enough electricity to power one home for 25 days.

The Mill Pond dam in West Tisbury was built to generate power for another era. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

The House and Senate last week gave final approval, and Wednesday Governor Patrick signed, legislation creating a loan and grant program to facilitate the repair or removal of unneeded dams and help finance repairs to structures aimed at controlling coastal flooding.

Supporters of the bill, which was pushed in the House by Rep. James Cantwell and in the Senate by Sen. Marc Pacheco, said it would help pay for repairs to seawalls, revetments, and jetties, as well as dams. The program does not have a recurring funding source, but supporters said it will start with $17 million in funds paid years ago to the state Treasury by about eight cities and towns that repaid drinking water project loans. The monies have sat in a trust because they were not authorized to be used for other purposes, according to Steve Long of the Nature Conservancy, who joined Mass. Audubon officials in praising the passage of the bill, one of many pieces of legislation to pick up momentum in the final days of the 2011-2012 legislative session.

Mr. Long credited the bill’s passage to support from a coalition of municipalities, engineers and environmental and conservation groups. In a statement, Boston Society of Civil Engineers President Peter Richardson said, “With nearly 3,000 dams in Massachusetts, of which many are well beyond their design life and are no longer serving their original intended purpose, this legislation will help address the safety and environmental concerns associated with older dams that are in need of repair. The Bill also has provisions to address seawalls, which are critical to protecting properties in coastal and tidal areas. The civil engineering community applauds the Senate and House for working together to help make our infrastructure safer.”

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The film, "Green Fire, Aldo Leopold and a land ethic for our time," details the contributions of one of the country's conservation giants. — Photo courtesy of aldoleopold.org

Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF), one of the oldest land-conservation organizations on the Vineyard, will broaden its public outreach with a new education initiative, launching this Saturday with the film “Green Fire” at the new Martha’s Vineyard Film Society (MVFS) building at the Tisbury Marketplace.

Presented in collaboration with the MVFS, “Green Fire” is a documentary about the life and legacy of Aldo Leopold, conservationist, forester, and wilderness advocate. Mr. Leopold graduated from the Yale School of Forestry in 1909 and joined the then-new U.S. Forest Service. Rising quickly through the ranks, at age 24 he became supervisor of the Carson National Forest in New Mexico. In 1922 he advocated that the Gila National Forest be managed as a wilderness area, and in 1924 it became the first area in the U.S. to receive an official wilderness designation. In 1933, he published the first textbook on wildlife management and was hired by the University of Wisconsin as the nation’s first professor of wildlife management and ecology. Aldo Leopold’s call for a “land ethic” still resonates in conservation issues today.

Although Mr. Leopold is known as an advocate of keeping land “forever wild,” SMF executive director Adam Moore, a 1995 graduate of the Yale School of Forestry, reports that Mr. Leopold held a balanced approach to conservation, designating areas for forestry, agriculture, and public access, as well as wildlife sanctuaries. Today, SMF seeks to use many of the properties it manages for public recreation and education, along with wildlife refuges not usually open to the public. The new Sanctuary Guide (distributed in the Jan. 3 issue of The Times) lists 18 sites with public hiking trails, some of which adjoin and connect with trails maintained by the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank and The Trustees of Reservation.

In its most recent strategic plan, the SMF board decided that an educational program is needed to get the word out about the many and varied SMF properties that are open to the public. According to Mr. Moore, SMF plans to offer educational programs and resources to “all people, from school children up to adults.” For adults there will be guided walks on many SMF properties, as well as films and lectures by conservationists. For now, lectures will be stand-alone programs, but Mr. Moore hopes to establish a regular speakers’ series in future years.

For children, SMF will offer an educational curriculum for the Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary in West Tisbury. The program is being written by West Tisbury School teacher Rebecca Solway, under a $5,000 grant from the Edey Foundation. The curriculum, which will conform to Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education frameworks for science education, will be available in the fall. “The Cedar Tree Neck curriculum will be there for schools, at no charge, should they want to use it,” Mr. Moore said.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Moore stressed that the SMF educational programs are not intended to duplicate or compete with programs offered by other conservation groups, such as The Trustees of Reservations or the Vineyard Conservation Society. “We don’t want to step on anyone’s toes,” he said. He pointed to the well-established programs at Mass Audubon’s Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, which use the fields and woods along the shores of Sengekontacket Pond. “That’s a terrific resource,” he said, “but Cedar Tree Neck is a different environment with different plants and wildlife. The Island is so varied that there is room for many educational programs.” He cited a recent program on bog ecology offered by SMF personnel through the Polly Hill Arboretum. SMF will offer future programs in collaboration with other conservation groups.

Jennifer Blum, SMF board member and chairman of the new education committee, told The Times much the same thing. “We have been in touch with all the other conservation organizations in order to collaborate about educational uses for the unique SMF properties. We asked them if there were subjects that they would like us to explore that they did not. We certainly don’t want to replicate any one else’s programs.”

Henry Beetle Hough and his wife, Elizabeth Bowie Hough, former editors of the Vineyard Gazette, founded SMF to conserve land in 1958, a time when there were almost no other organizations on the Vineyard working to conserve the natural, beautiful landscape and character of Martha’s Vineyard. According to the SMF website, from their house on Pierce Lane in Edgartown, the Houghs overlooked a field known as the sheriff’s meadow and a small pond used to cut ice in the days before refrigeration.

The website quotes Mr. Hough, “I had $7,500 from magazine rights from the Women’s Home Companion for a book. It was the only time I ever had $7,500 at one time, so we decided to preserve the ice pond and its surroundings.” Because no nonprofit organization would accept the land, the Houghs created a conservation organization to hold it in perpetuity. SMF was chartered in 1959. The Houghs worked with other donors to expand the acres of protected land on the Vineyard, even borrowing money to do so, and today SMF is the largest private owner of protected land on the Vineyard, according to Ms. Blum. It owns over 2,000 acres of conservation land and holds conservation restrictions on almost 600 acres more. Overseen by a board of directors, SMF now employs six year-round and two seasonal staff.

The film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time will be screened at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center at the Tisbury Marketplace on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven at 4 pm Saturday, January 12. The cost of the film is $7 for members of either the Vineyard Conservation Society or the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, and $10 for non-members.

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Shoreline development, as in this house in a development on Major's Cove on Sengekontacket Pond, has contributed to the problem. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Updated 9:15 am, October 12.

Town officials in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury face a daunting environmental task if they are to restore the health of three popular salt ponds. The task is outlined in three reports presented last week that describe goals to improve water quality in Farm Pond, Sengekontacket Pond, and Lagoon Pond.

State scientists say that if they fail, the ponds may deteriorate to the point where very little aquatic life can survive, boaters will have to navigate through an unsightly algae scum, and shoreline homeowners will have to endure awful smells.

“Coastal communities,” the scientists wrote in a series of report to the towns, “rely on clean, productive and aesthetically pleasing marine and estuarine waters for tourism, recreational swimming, fishing and boating, as well as for commercial fin fishing and shellfishing.”

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) suggested what action the three towns must take, and offered guidance on how to do it, based on years of scientific study of the three ponds.

The recommendations include a combination of sewering, stormwater management, natural wetlands filtering, and new town bylaws to limit fertilizer use.

Up to now, DEP has relied on firm suggestions and taken the view that solutions will take time. On Cape Cod, and in other states, activists have sued local, state, and federal governments for failure to comply with the federal Clean Water Act and speed up the process. Courts could impose sanctions or clean-up plans.

Any solution, by necessity, will have to take a regional approach. The Farm Pond watershed is located entirely in Oak Bluffs, but Sengekontacket Pond straddles the border of Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, and Lagoon Pond straddles the border of Tisbury and Oak Bluffs.

According to DEP, aquatic plant and animal life is already affected by the amount of nitrogen getting into all three ponds from natural sources, as well as controllable sources such as septic systems, storm runoff, and fertilizer.

The effects are measured in the loss of eelgrass beds, periodic algae blooms, and lower numbers of aquatic animals.

Reversing the decline will mean more than simply reducing the amount of nitrogen loading now. It will mean controlling nitrogen from future development within the pond watersheds.

Oak Bluffs town administrator Bob Whritenour said the target limits set by DEP will be the regulatory framework for restoring the ponds.

“These limits will drive all of our future efforts to reduce nitrogen in our coastal ponds,” Mr. Whritenour said. “We are at a critical phase in our water quality improvement efforts.”

Total nitrogen

After measuring and analyzing the ponds for a period of five years or more, state scientists determined that nitrogen loading is already signficantly higher than levels in a healthy pond, and set specific targets that will restore the health of the salt ponds.

According to the Marine Estuary Program studies, an average of 58.8 kilograms (about 130 pounds) of nitrogen enter Sengekontacket Pond every day.

Last month, DEP issued reports setting the target levels for Total Maximum Daily Loads (TDML) that would restore the ponds to healthy levels. The reports are in draft form, and they could change, based on comment from local officials. The towns have 30 days to respond to the new limits, but Oak Bluffs has already asked for an extension of the comment period.

For Sengekontacket Pond, state regulators set a target of 50 kilograms of nitrogen per day.

According to the report, septic systems in private homes surrounding the ponds account for nearly half the nitrogen that enters Sengekontacket Pond, and it accounts for 80 percent of the controllable nitrogen sources. The next highest controllable source is commercial fertilizers like lawn and garden products. That accounts for 12 percent of the controllable sources of nitrogen. Storm-water runoff from paved or hard surfaces accounts for 7.5 percent.

For Lagoon Pond, the current level is 101.7 kg per day, and the target level is 74 kg per day. In Lagoon Pond, 76 percent of the controllable sources of nitrogen come from septic systems, 11 percent from storm runoff, 8 percent from agriculture, and 5 percent from commercial fertilizer.

In Farm Pond, much small by comparison, current nitrogen loading amounts to 6.46 kg per day, and the target level is set at 4.88 kg per day. The report attributes 69 percent of the nitrogen to septic systems, 12 percent from runoff, and 10 percent from commercial fertilizer.

Value judgement

The deteriorating ponds threaten the value of shoreline property. At the Oak Bluffs selectmen’s meeting September 25, Terry Appenzellar and Duncan Ross represented Friends of Sengekontacket, an advocacy group working to improve the health of that pond. Ms. Appenzellar brought a dramatic example of the problem to the meeting. She set a large jar filled with unsightly algae collected from Sengekontacket Pond on the selectmen’s meeting table. She told them she would spare them a demonstration of the smell, by keeping the jar closed.

“You smelled it all summer,” Ms. Appenzellar said. “You couldn’t help but smell it.” She said algae growth, which is fed by nitrogen loading, threatens the value of shoreline property owners.

“In Oak Bluffs, there are 32 riparian owners, with $50 million in assessed property value that could be negatively impacted by continued bad smells. In Edgartown, there are 56 houses, worth $80 million in assessed value.”

Friends of Sengekontacket has tried to engage homeowners in the effort to clean up the ponds, with limited success. She said only one of the many homeowners associations that surround the pond agreed to meet with Friends of Sengekontacket to discuss the issues. She said the group has mailed a letter with a number of steps homeowners could take to reduce nitrogen loading, but follow-up conversations were met with little interest.

The group urged selectmen to consider a number of actions. Designating the watersheds as districts of critical planning concern (DCPC) would give the towns considerable authority to control new development. A town bylaw regulating lawn fertilizer would help, Ms. Appenzellar said.

The Friends of Sengekontacket also urged selectmen to consider requiring periodic inspection and testing of septic systems, to insure they are working properly.

Sewer issues

The studies show that the largest source of controllable nitrogen getting into the ponds, by a wide margin, comes from septic systems. One solution is expanding the town sewer systems to those homes within the watershed. But town officials say that introduces a new set of problems. First among the issues is how to pay for any new sewering projects. Both Oak Bluffs and Tisbury would need costly expansion of their sewer plants to handle a signficant increase in wastewater treatment.

Town officials are also concerned that expanding sewage infrastructure could trigger more growth, increasing the burden on schools, roads, and water systems.

Ms. Appenzellar said the town will play a critical role on this issue. “Coordinate the use of sewering resources and alternatives,” she urged Oak Bluffs selectmen. “Sewering is not the only answer.”

Alternatives to sewering could include composting toilets, small scale sewage treatment systems, and nitrogen removal technology for each individual property.

This article was updated to reflect a clarification in the role of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. The commission can hold hearings, debate the issues, and create guidelines for regulation of a district of critical planning concern, but it is the town which holds the authority to control growth, by adopting the guidelines as a change to its zoning bylaws.

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John Murray, facilities manager for the Martha's Vineyard Hospital. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

John Murray, facilities manager for the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital (MVH), is in charge of maintenance for the new hospital building, which is designed for maximum, state-of-the-art energy efficiency. But he is also in charge of the old wood hospital building, as wasteful of energy as the new building is not. Mr. Murray, with the blessing of Timothy Walsh, MVH chief executive officer, has been re-engineering the old building’s infrastructure, making changes that have already saved thousands of dollars, and he has more changes in mind.

The new MVH building is one of only a handful of hospitals in the United States to receive a high level of certification for earth-friendly design and construction, with a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) classification from the US Green Building Council. According to the USGBC, “LEED certification provides independent, third-party verification that a building. . . was designed and built using strategies aimed at achieving high performance in key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.”

By contrast, the older buildings at MVH are an environmentalist’s nightmare. “We have a huge opportunity to save money at the old hospital,” Mr. Murray told The Times.

Steam heat

The boiler plant, which provides heat to the old hospital, is in the basement at the east end of the old building. It is a huge room, more square footage than most zoning bylaws permit in guest houses, and packed with equipment. The centerpiece, filling most of the space, is a pair of 1972 oil-fired steam boilers. Each of these behemoths is as large as the trailer of an eighteen-wheeler. At full operation, the boilers themselves are noisy, but the cacophony (and expense) is multiplied by auxiliary condensers, pumps, and exhaust fans. In summertime, the heat in the boiler room often reached 115F.

“Why were the boilers running in summertime?” you ask. Because they were the only hot water supply for all the old hospital, including the kitchen more than 500 feet away at the west end of the old building. Steam generated in the boilers was piped to a heat-exchanger in the kitchen, where it heated water for dishwashers and sinks. The cooled steam returned by another pipe to the boiler room, wasting heat and not a little water in both directions.

For more than a month now, the boiler room has been as silent as the meditation room. Mr. Murray has re-engineered the hot water system for the old hospital with a commercial-size propane water heater, not much larger than a home water heater. There is another propane water heater in the kitchen.

How much money has this step saved? In fuel costs alone over the same period last year, the difference is $425 per day for heating oil to run the boilers, versus $90 per day for propane for the water heaters. There are additional savings in electricity for all the boilers’ auxiliary equipment and savings in wasted water, about $60,000 a year

Next summer Mr. Murray plans to replace the old behemoths with a more efficient heating system using hot water rather than steam. Mr. Walsh confirms that although the project will be expensive, a new heating plant will soon pay for itself in fuel savings.

Other re-engineering

The old hospital building is no longer used at night, and there is a great deal of difference in the infrastructure required for daytime-only operation. Timers have been installed to turn off lights and set back thermostats and exhaust fans from 6 pm to 5 am.

The lights in the Physical Therapy and Wellness wing have been changed to smaller fluorescent daylight tubes, cheaper and easier on the eyes.

Propane hot water heaters, low-flow faucets, and staff training have reduced water usage by 250,000 gallons a year.

The water for irrigation and outside maintenance is now metered separately. Why does that matter? Because the Oak Bluffs sewer department bills for sewerage based on water consumption. Outside faucets and sprinklers do not flow into the sewer system, so MVH is now able to subtract that water from the total water intake. Mr. Murray estimates the savings at about 130,000 gallons by the end of the year (at about 2.8 cents a gallon).

In the physicians’ wing, where doctors’ offices are, the air conditioners were 15 years old and inefficient. Mr. Murray has replaced them with newer units at a savings of about 25 percent in electricity costs.

John Murray

John Murray himself is a success story as dramatic as the changes he is accomplishing at MVH.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, he began life as an apprentice in steel fabrication and welding. It is perhaps important today that the work he did in Ireland was building experimental trucks and tanks. What he learned on the job was engineering. “I always loved to tinker,” he told The Times.

When he was in his mid-20s, the Irish economy collapsed and he found himself out of work. He began all over again, applying for and getting a job at a Maine hotel as a carpenter’s assistant at $5 an hour. Finding his way to Martha’s Vineyard, he got a job in maintenance at the Harbor View Hotel, working his way up to director of engineering.

Mr. Walsh hired Mr. Murray two years ago on the recommendation or Cornelius Bowman, who was then serving as the clerk of the works for the new hospital construction and had formerly been facilities manager for Carney Hospital in Boston. Mr. Bowman recognized that Mr. Murray was the right man to take over the new building and start re-engineering the old.

Mr. Walsh told The Times that most of the ideas for retrofitting the old hospital come from Mr. Murray. “We talk often about saving money, but the [specific] plans are John’s wisdom. He is innovative — he really knows the business.” Mr. Walsh praised Mr. Murray as a man “who can take an idea and run with it.”

Mr. Murray became an American citizen in 2000 and now lives in Edgartown with his wife, Rosemary, who is from Rio de Janeiro, and his son Ryan, who was recently featured in a Times story on autism (Autism awareness begins with one family’s story). Mr. Murray also has a son and a daughter from a previous marriage.