Stepping out for the environment
For any environmental group, raising awareness is key, but not always easy. The Vineyard Conservation Society's (VCS) solution is to do more than talk the talk. This season marks the 25th anniversary of the organization's winter walks, educational tours through some of the Vineyard's environmentally diverse areas to illustrate the importance of conservation.
Brendan O'Neill, the executive director of VCS for the past 23 years, explains: "In seeking civic participation and understanding of environmental issues, one of the ways that we believe we can advance that goal is to get people out on the land in the first place. Once people see these beautiful places and connect with their sense of place, we're persuaded that they become better advocates for the environment."
Many of the monthly walks traverse areas not generally accessible to the public. VCS often obtains permission to conduct walks on private property, including land that is protected by environmental restrictions.
Photos by Susan Safford
After graduating from Pace University School of Law in New York, with a degree in environmental law, Mr. O'Neill, was invited to join the Environmental Protection Agency during the Reagan administration. Instead he came to the Vineyard to work for VCS - a decision that has been successful from all perspectives. Last week, Mr. O'Neill, along with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., received the Nicholas A. Robinson Environmental Award, recognizing significant contributions in public service in the environmental field.
Unlike organizations such as The Trustees of Reservations and the Sherriff's Meadow Foundation, VCS does not typically hold or manage land. Rather, it is an environmental advocacy group.
In 1965, an environmental threat prompted a group to found the grassroots organization to advocate for the preservation of 38 acres of wild rolling moors in Aquinnah. The team of Islanders and seasonal residents was able to halt construction of a state highway to the West Basin at a time when overdevelopment was beginning to be recognized as a serious threat.
Mr. O'Neill notes, "All our successes are in league with colleagues and towns and individuals. The Land Bank has been a critical player in the role of stepping in to buy lands." As an example, he cites the Southern Woodlands in Oak Bluffs.
Despite the number of local organizations active in protecting the environment, the public's help is critical to advancing their causes. Therefore, education is one of the primary goals of VCS. Communication Coordinator Kaysea Cole stresses the importance of the winter walks program. "By experiencing Martha's Vineyard's natural environment and learning about Island history and ecology, a connection is made. There's an understanding about the importance of protecting our land and our shared natural resources, like water."
The health of Vineyard water will be the focus of the walks this winter. Thanks to a grant from the Massachusetts Environmental Trust, VCS has launched a clean water initiative this year - a theme they have extended to the winter walks program. Says Mr. O'Neill, "Something that everyone recognizes as timely and critical is what can we do to protect our watersheds and our water bodies."
The great ponds will be the focus of the first two walks off the season. "The great ponds are one of our most important communal resources," says Mr. O'Neill. "Now is the time that people need to understand that we need to pay attention to protecting that resource."
The first tour will take hikers to Crow Hollow Farm of New Lane in West Tisbury. The farm's owners, Samantha Look and Kristian Strom, will lead the tour, which will include a bit of shoreline of Tisbury Great Pond. Ms. Look, a student of environmental studies, will discuss issues arising from the farm's location on the pond, as well as efforts the two have made to save the farm. "One of the subtexts here," says Mr. O'Neill, "is about the walk leaders themselves. It's not easy keeping a property in the family on Martha's Vineyard"
The Crow Hollow Farm walk will be family friendly. It's relatively short and there are ponies and other farm attractions for children. Ms. Cole, who, along with operations coordinator Signe Benjamin, organizes the winter walks, points out the value of engaging children, as well as adults, in the issues facing our environment.
December's VCS walk exploring part of Edgartown Great Pond will be led by Bob Woodruff, the executive director of the Edgartown Great Pond Foundation. The pond has recently been the topic of much media attention because of a dangerous algae bloom. Mr. Woodruff was largely responsible for alerting people to the problem, and his group is actively studying the situation and working on solutions. He is optimistic that the algae, which thrive on nitrogen, can be controlled by implementing changes in our lifestyles, particularly our handling of waste.
Other winter walks will include a tour of Squibnocket and a visit to the Chappy breach with Greg Whitmore, ecologist for The Trustees of Reservations. "We're lucky enough to have expert walk leaders from colleague organizations," says Mr. O'Neill.
"We've been talking about this issue to a relatively receptive Vineyard audience for more than 40 years," says Mr. O'Neill. "We have a really knowledgeable population here, and it has been a really wonderful environment to advance these issues.
"It's true that in recent years green consciousness has entered the mainstream. The concern that we have now is, particularly in hard times, that we not lose that momentum. We're saying now that green is not just for the good times."
VCS winter walks, second Sunday of every month throughout the winter. This Sunday's walk will start at 1 pm at Crow Hollow Farm, off New Lane in West Tisbury. Cider and cookies will be served. All walks are free. 508-693-9588.
Gwyn McAllister is a freelance writer living in Oak Bluffs.