Land Bank sees abutter influence in state's Ice House Pond decision
In an unprecedented action, the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank (MVLB) commission has written to the state's top environmental official to request that an environmental ecologist in the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) no longer be allowed to review or comment on Land Bank management plans.
In a second letter, also sent to Ian Bowles, secretary of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (EOEA), the Land Bank criticized what it said was "inappropriate influence" by abutters on the state's review of the Land Bank's management plan and proposed changes to the plan that would permit public access to the property this summer. (See related story here.)
In the first of the March 5 letters to Mr. Bowles, Land Bank commission chairman Tom Robinson of Tisbury said that recent written comments by NHESP restoration ecologist Tim Simmons show "unreasonable and unfounded bias on his part" toward the Land Bank.
This week members of the Land Bank commission said that Mr. Simmons' evident hostility towards the public land conservation agency and its goals make him unsuitable for reviewing management plans.
Once approved at the local level, Land Bank management plans are submitted to EOEA for approval by the secretary. Natural Heritage is one of several state environmental agencies that routinely provide comments as part of the state approval process.
In 2005, then-secretary Ellen Roy Herzfelder rejected a management plan for Ice House Pond (Manaquayak Preserve) in West Tisbury, the first time in the public land conservation agency's 19-year history that the state had failed to approve a submitted management plan.
Last April, the Land Bank submitted a revised management plan. In a three-page letter dated July 24, 2006, EOEA Secretary Stephen Pritchard approved the conservation agency's property management plan. For the first time in 20 years, EOEA approval of a Land Bank plan came with a set of conditions.
In both cases, Mr. Simmons reviewed the plan for NHESP and provided comments to Christy Edwards, EOEA policy coordinator. As part of an e-mail message to Ms. Edwards dated July 7, 2006, and attached to a two-page comment letter, Mr. Simmons wrote, "In my opinion the best solution for the long term conservation of this habitat would be a belt and suspenders approach where another agency, more sympathetic to biological conservation, would hold a CR [conservation restriction] on the land."
Mr. Robinson was surprised when he read those comments during a recent review of correspondence associated with the management plan. In an e-mail dated Feb. 19 Mr. Robinson introduced himself and asked Mr. Simmons, "What did you mean by this? Do you think that the Land Bank does not do a good job of biological conservation? Keep in mind, almost every property the Land Bank buys would have otherwise been developed with little or no oversight. I would like to know your thoughts on this."
Mr. Simmons responded in an e-mail dated Feb. 19. "No mysteries there Tom," he wrote. "The open hostility toward biological conservation by the MVLB has been palpable for decades. I am suggesting that two or more goals can be compatible and that all properties are complex and unique, ecologically, historically, culturally. There is more to planning the future of the Island than trails and recreation. I think the MVLB is a fine agency and has accomplished a great deal but all agencies can improve, be improved."
Mr. Simmons is well acquainted with the Land Bank and the Vineyard. Prior to joining NHESP he worked for the Massachusetts chapter of The Nature Conservancy and he was the executive director of Sheriff's Meadow Foundation, a private Island conservation nonprofit.
Mr. Robinson shared Mr. Simmons response at a Land Bank commission meeting. "It was the clear consensus," said Mr. Robinson, "that we did not want someone with such an obvious bias to be the person at NHESP who passed off on our plans."
In his letter to EOEA officials, Mr. Robinson highlighted Mr. Simmons comments and wrote, "The MVLB commissioners are very concerned about these remarks and vehemently disagree. We feel they show unreasonable and unfounded bias on his part toward the MVLB. Our long record of land stewardship and property management clearly prove that we indeed do consistently address biological conservation as a highest priority."
A copy of the letter was also sent to Tom French, NHESP director and acting Mass. Wildlife commissioner.
The Land Bank commission includes one elected member from each of the six towns and one appointed by the EOEA secretary.
Chilmark commissioner Pamela Goff, a former selectman and long-time member of her town conservation commission, said the Land Bank's first concern is protecting the environment. She said that is evident simply by looking at the approximately 2700 acres and 69 properties the Land Bank currently manages.
"Just the fact that we value public access does not mean that we do not value biological diversity," she said.
Ms. Goff said that in her view, Mr. Simmons' negative opinion of the Land Bank began with his opposition to a boat access ramp the Land Bank constructed at Sepiessa Point Reservation which provided the first public access to Tisbury Great Pond, because it disturbed marsh grass and insect habitat. At the time Mr. Simmons worked for The Nature Conservancy. "That's where it started," she said.
Ms. Goff said it is important for the public to be able to visit and enjoy natural places. "If you get people to love being outdoors then they are going to care about all the creatures," she said.
Edgartown commissioner Edward "Pete" Vincent, a lawyer and Edgartown conservation commission chairman, said the Land Bank is very conscientious about protecting the environment. Property trails are laid out he said to have the least impact and minimize any disturbance.
"We allow for public access," he said, "and I think that is what bothers some of these conservation groups that do not think there should be any public access."
Mr. Vincent said the Land Bank is a public agency and public use generates support for the Land Bank's goal of acquiring more conservation land.
He said that if Mr. Simmons believes what he wrote, he should not be in a position to review the Land Bank. "He is expressing a prejudice towards the Land Bank, and in any type of a judicial situation he would be excused or removed because he obviously does not have an open mind to our programs and our goals," said Mr. Vincent.
Mr French and Mr. Simmons could not be reached for comment.