Woods family donates 500-acre conservation preserve

Upland oak forests provide habitat for scarlet tanagers and other songbirds. — Photo courtesy of TNC

Continuing the conservation legacy of their father and mother, the children of Bob and Jeanne Woods have given nearly 500 acres of forest and grassland property in West Tisbury and Chilmark, known as the Frances Newhall Woods Nature and Wildlife Preserve to The Nature Conservancy (TNC).

“Many people give us land for conservation,” TNC Martha’s Vineyard office director Tom Chase said. “But Bob truly loved this piece of the Vineyard, and he ensured that it would be protected forever.”

In 1991, Bob and Jeanne Woods donated a conservation restriction on the property to The Nature Conservancy. At the time, it was among the most valuable gifts the global organization had ever received, Mr. Chase said.

Both Bob and Jeanne died in 2011, but their children; Edwin “Robin” Woods, Francine Woods, and Prudence Noon, have formalized the couple’s wish that ownership of the preserve property be granted to The Nature Conservancy, according to a press release.

The Woods family is well known for years of commitment to conservation on the Island, having previously donated land to the town of West Tisbury and to the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society.

“Beginning in the 1980s, our parents, with the advice of Island visionaries, concurred that because of its primarily undisturbed and significant conservation value, the property would become a nature and wildlife preserve in perpetuity,” said Francine Woods. “The acceptance of this gift by The Nature Conservancy is a transition in stewardship of a unique landscape that fosters the protection of an area-wide ecosystem.”

The land is now doubly protected. The permanent conservation restriction on the property has been transferred to the Vineyard Conservation Society, a longtime Island conservation advocacy group.

Legally, one organization cannot both own a property and hold a conservation restriction on that property, so the two conservation groups will collaborate on stewardship of the land going forward. VCS, the Conservancy’s partner in initial protection of the property, will hold the conservation restriction, according to a press release announcing the deal.

“This is a significant conservation achievement, more than two decades in the making,” Brendan O’Neill, VCS executive director, said. “VCS is happy to be partnering with the Conservancy to keep the protections of the original conservation instrument alive.”

The preserve abuts the Polly Hill Arboretum, the Agricultural Society’s fairgrounds, and Panhandle Road along its eastern edge, and to the west it runs up against the Land Bank’s Waskosim’s Rock Reservation.

VCS will continue to offer guided walks on the property, but access will remain limited, in alignment with the family’s wishes, according to TNC.

The land includes two very different types of ecosystems. Upland oak forests provide habitat for scarlet tanagers and other songbirds, and the forest’s pocket wetlands and seasonal vernal pools offer ecological diversity. Nearby, grasslands provide habitat for American woodcock and rare moths. In fact, for one moth species, the only known record north of Staten Island was on the Woods property. Mill Brook also runs through the property, harboring brook trout, as well as the river otters that Bob Woods loved to watch.

This property also sits within nearly 2,000 acres of interconnected forestland, creating important wildlife corridors. And the 485 acres of the preserve itself represents a significant forest core on Martha’s Vineyard, where nature can take its course.

Currently, many of the oak trees on the property are dead or dying, victims of a caterpillar infestation in 2005, 2006 and 2007 and drought that followed.

Experts disagree on what will replace these dead and dying oaks and how long it will take for oaks to predominate once again.