Neighbors' Voices : Conservation, a matter of faith in action
We say goodbye to 2009, with a glance at the exhausted year and a look forward to the fresh one.
As has been its practice for many years, The Times invited selected Island leaders and community members to review some of the accomplishments and challenges of the year that is about to end and to consider what may lie ahead in 2010.
Adam Moore was named executive director of the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation, the Vineyard's largest private conservation organization, in May, 2008. Mr. Moore, who received a master's degree from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, previously was executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association and land superintendent for the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank.
Conservation is an act of faith. If not for faith, why else would an organization agree to hold a piece of land undeveloped forever, or agree to set aside natural resources simply because some day they may be needed? It takes faith too, to weather economic storms knowing that better days will come. The conservation organizations of Martha's Vineyard demonstrated that faith in 2009.
Despite tightened budgets, all of the Vineyard's conservation groups registered accomplishments in the past year. The Trustees of Reservations found an excellent superintendent for its Chappaquiddick properties in David Babson. At Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, MassAudubon opened a completely renovated nature center. Under a new monitoring program, The Nature Conservancy documented several species of rare moths on its lands. Through its "Ponds in Peril" program, the Vineyard Conservation Society drew attention to the declining health of our great ponds. The Polly Hill Arboretum discovered eight native plants not previously known to the Vineyard and "rediscovered" eight more. The Martha's Vineyard Land Bank Commission completed beautiful landscape work at the Hickory Cove portion of the Three Ponds Reservation. At the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, the Commonwealth removed 100 acres of dead red pines.
For Sheriff's Meadow Foundation, we worked hard to maintain our properties and open new paths. At the Phillips Preserve on the west side of Lake Tashmoo, we extended the Margaret Lindsay Memorial Trail into a mile-long loop. Travel this trail, and if you are lucky, you will spot a magnificent great horned owl. We opened a new loop trail at our 17-acre Huckleberry Barrens preserve in Katama. We cooperated with the Land Bank, which will open a beautiful perimeter trail at our Quansoo Farm property in Chilmark in 2010. Next year, Sheriff's Meadow will blaze a new trail near the King's Highway in Chilmark. By connecting to nearby Land Bank trails, the new path will link North Road to South Road with one continuous trail.
We also wrote plans and policies. Concerned about tick-borne diseases, we adopted a hunting policy and, for the first time, officially allowed the bowhunting of deer on a few properties. Our first season went well. We drafted a strategic plan and published an informative casebook. We prepared about two dozen property management plans, and sent them to the Commonwealth's Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program for approval. Our management plans must be approved by Natural Heritage because most of our land lies within zones of "Priority Habitat" for rare species. We obtained approval to renew farming on 12 acres of Nat's Farm.
All conservation organizations faced funding challenges in the past year. Sheriff's Meadow cut its budget in the past year, but in the future we hope to grow, and growing will require raising money. I am confident that, with a spirited, optimistic attitude, all the conservation groups can raise the funds that they need. At Sheriff's Meadow, most of our support comes from individual donors. I would like to grow our total number of donors and to encourage our current generous donors to give even more generously. To accomplish that, I believe that our lands must play a wholesome, needed role both in the life of the community and in the lives of individuals.
Balancing worthy conservation purposes often proves a challenge. To illustrate, consider two Sheriff's Meadow examples from 2009. In our Quansoo hayfield, we found two pairs of nesting grasshopper sparrows, and at Nat's Farm, we found 240 grass-leaved ladies' tresses, an orchid. Both the sparrow and the orchid are listed as threatened in Massachusetts. Not wanting to harm the sparrows or the orchids, we cancelled the first and second cutting of hay at Quansoo and revised our plans for Nat's Farm, moving the area to be farmed to another part of the property.
While these actions sufficed for the time being, over the long term, failing to mow, hay, or burn these fields will actually hurt these rare species. Absent management, trees and shrubs will overtake the fields and make them inhospitable to the sparrow and orchid. Our task, then, is to maintain the fields in a manner that helps the rare species without hurting them. I relish this challenge, because I think there is an opportunity here to accomplish agricultural and rare species goals in the same location. This issue also demonstrates the value of an ecological inventory. On each of these properties, a staff or contract ecologist conducted a survey and found rare species. While their findings make the job more difficult, they also make us better stewards of the land.
Conservation restrictions will pose challenges. With a conservation restriction, a conservation organization does not own the land it protects, but rather holds the development rights to land that remains privately owned. At Sheriff's Meadow, we monitor each of our 40 conservation restrictions annually, and the burden of monitoring them, and enforcing them if needed, weighs heavily upon us. Mistakes on our part can carry significant penalties, including the revocation of our tax-exempt status. Conservation restrictions are serious obligations, and we will be working to improve our conservation restriction program and to strengthen partnerships with conservation landowners. Our work in this area will be another step toward adopting all of the land trust standards and practices as set forth by the national Land Trust Alliance.
One unique land management challenge facing Sheriff's Meadow Foundation in 2010 is the future of the Mitchell House, or the Hancock-Mayhew-Mitchell House, an antique house at Quansoo Farm. By some accounts the house dates back to the 1600s, by other accounts to the 1700s. Whatever its exact age is, it certainly is old and needs repair. In 2010, Sheriff's Meadow Foundation will work closely with the town of Chilmark on a good plan for this historic house. As a small but hopeful start, my family wove a wreath of cedar boughs and grape vines, trudged through the snow to the old house, and hung a wreath on its front door on Christmas.
Whether flush with funding or not, there is a great deal of work that the Island's conservation groups must do. There are properties to be conserved, ponds to be denitrified, invasive species to be controlled and rare species to be helped. There is an Island Grown Initiative that would benefit if more land were made available for farming, and there is an Island Plan with a host of conservation issues to be addressed.
I have faith that we will meet all of these challenges and others. I have faith because Martha's Vineyard is a community that strongly believes in conservation and generously supports it. Fifty years ago, Henry and Elizabeth Hough took a leap of faith and created Sheriff's Meadow Foundation. They gave the new foundation land that no other group wanted. In 2009, Sheriff's Meadow Foundation celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with a series of public walks, an amateur photo contest, and a gala event at the Allen Farm in July.
The real reason to celebrate, however, is found with a glance at a map of the conservation lands of Martha's Vineyard. The largest landowners on the Island today are conservation agencies and conservation organizations. On New Year's Day of 2010, the sun will rise over the conservation lands of Cape Poge and Wasque, set over conservation lands at the Gay Head Cliffs, and illuminate some 24,000 acres conservation land in between. Since the establishment of the Heath Hen Reservation in 1908, and mostly over the past 50 years, Martha's Vineyard has woven a wreath of conservation lands that rings the Island, and that is a reason for faith.