Sheriff’s Meadow resolves habitat issues with state

In July the work to remove trees at the Caroline Tuthill Preserve was no longer noticeable. — Photo courtesy Sheriff's Meadow Foundation

The Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF) yesterday announced that the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program has approved a plan to mitigate the effects of the nonprofit organization’s removal of trees and plants from two of its properties. The work was done last year, without proper review by the state agency.

Natural Heritage, which is responsible for enforcing the state Endangered Species Act, levied no penalties. The agency also found that a “taking” of protected species had not occurred, an important determination that spared the conservation group additional environmental filings.

The agreement follows months of review, email exchanges and discussions between Natural Heritage staff and SMF’s new executive director, Adam Moore, and his staff.

“I believe that the plan that we’ve written in cooperation with Natural Heritage is the best plan for the land, and the outcome is the best for our organization,” said Mr. Moore in a press release. “Every component of this plan will help to improve the natural habitats of these properties.”

The announcement ends an uncomfortable chapter in the history of the conservation organization and provides an auspicious note at the start of the New Year, one in which the largest private Island conservation organization, measured in terms of land it controls, celebrates its 50th anniversary.

SMF ran into trouble when it allowed the removal of plants and trees from the 61-acre Priscilla Hancock Meadow, off South Road in Chilmark, and the Caroline Tuthill Preserve, a 150-acre property near the Triangle in Edgartown. The work was done without proper permitting review by Natural Heritage.

At the Hancock Meadow, the goal was to expand the native grasslands. Trees were removed from the Tuthill Preserve as part of a long-standing management plan intended to create a meadow, according to Sheriff’s Meadow.

Last spring, in keeping with the management plans, Dick Johnson, the executive director of SMF at the time, allowed a landscaper, working under a labor-for-plants barter arrangement, to remove huckleberry from the Hancock Meadow and mature pitch pines from the Tuthill Preserve.

A landowner who plans work that does not fall under one of 12 specific exemptions, in an area designated by the state as priority habitat, must file a description of the work with Natural Heritage for review and in some cases pay a permit fee.

The priority habitat designation is based on the known geographical extent of habitat for all state-listed rare species, both plants and animals. It is a designation that covers approximately 75 percent of Martha’s Vineyard and includes the Sheriff’s Meadow properties.

Mr. Johnson filed a management plan for the work in Chilmark, but he did not fully describe that work. He did not file a plan for the Tuthill property.

According to the 10-page habitat management and restoration plan approved by the state, Sheriff’s Meadow will continue its work of creating open meadow habitat at the Tuthill Preserve “and will create an attractive pitch pine savannah as well. At the Priscilla Hancock Meadow in Chilmark, Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation will conduct additional management to promote huckleberry and sandplain heathland habitat and will add seed and compost to areas where huckleberry was transplanted.”

To mitigate any loss of habitat that occurred during the previous work, Sheriff’s Meadow has agreed to manage additional properties to provide increased habitat areas for three state-listed moth species and Nantucket shadbush and to designate money within its budget to be used to implement and maintain the habitat management plan, beginning with an initial appropriation of $27,000.

In many regards, Mr. Moore said Sheriff’s Meadow will continue to do what it has always done and would do some things a little sooner than it might have, in keeping with closer state scrutiny. Apart from the regulatory context, Mr. Moore said these are all good things to do.

In his letter of approval dated Nov. 24, 2008, Thomas French, Division of Fisheries and Wildlife assistant director, said, “pitch pine scrub oak barrens and sandplain grasslands support many globally rare state-listed species and often require active management. Without management by organizations such as the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, these habitats will deteriorate over time, and may ultimately disappear from Massachusetts.”

In further comments provided to The Martha’s Vineyard Times, Mr. French said, “We are pleased with the resolution and commend the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation for their continued protection and management of state-listed species habitats on Martha’s Vineyard.”

Throughout the debate on the key point of whether a taking had occurred, Mr. Moore, who earned a master’s degree from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in 1995, argued that there was no taking. In a letter dated Oct. 6, 2008, to Natural Heritage, Mr. Moore wrote that despite procedural errors having to do with filing its management plans, he did not believe that the removal of 29 pitch pines from the Tuthill Preserve, where he estimated there are some 25,000 other pitch pine trees, had any significant impact on the imperial moth population. And, he pointed out, while a half-acre of huckleberry shrubs was removed at the Hancock Meadow, there are more than 30 acres of similar huckleberry habitat. In addition, the management plan approved by Natural Heritage, he said, “allows Sheriff’s Meadow to reduce the amount of huckleberry to increase native grasses through a regime of mowing and prescribed burning.”

For years, Sheriff’s Meadow has had barter arrangements with Island landscaping firms that provide services such as mowing, in exchange for unwanted plants.

Sheriff’s Meadow’s 2006 annual report described the positive benefits of the barter arrangement. Mr. Johnson wrote, “This type of barter arrangement is particularly satisfying, because we get important conservation work done without spending any of our cash, we increase the supply of native plants used for landscaping on the Island, and we support a local business that is committed to a sustainable future for Martha’s Vineyard.”

This week, Mr. Moore said that while he might allow similar arrangements in the future, the scope of the work would be outlined in writing and be better overseen.