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Last year the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) celebrated its 50th birthday. Executive director Brendan O’Neill has been with the organization for 31 of those 51 years. The Times recently talked to Mr. O’Neill and his team about VCS’ mission and the important work that they’re doing to protect this land we call home.
What’s your background? How did you come to the Island?
I’ve served as executive director of VCS since 1985. My training is in law, science, and environment. My law specialization is in environmental legal studies from Pace Law School in New York, and my undergraduate work was in neurosciences and environment at Williams College in Williamstown.
I first visited the Island with my family in 1970. Several years later, my roommate at college was Dana Gaines [the graphic artist, runner, and endurance paddler] from Edgartown. During college and law school, I would come back and drive a cab in the summer. That allowed me to get to know the community, the issues, and the lay of the land pretty well. Following legal training, my work options were with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in New York City, or with VCS. My familiarity with the Island made my decision an easy one.
What were you doing before VCS?
I worked at the N.Y. State Attorney General’s Office at the old World Trade Center, and on the National Audubon Society’s national energy plan, also in Manhattan.
How was VCS originally created?
VCS is a nonprofit organization formed in 1965 by year-round and seasonal residents concerned that this Island desperately needed a watchdog organization –— an environmental advocacy organization — monitoring land use and development proposals, and acting through education and in other ways to safeguard the Vineyard’s natural assets and rural character.
VCS celebrated its 50-year anniversary last year. What did the organization do to celebrate?
We made the 50th theme a part of all our programs — including our series of Winter Walks, and the Earth Day Beach Cleanup. We also pursued initiatives like the High School Environmental Art Contest, and the “Nature as Inspiration” Environmental Film Festival collaboration with the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center — all ways to raise awareness about the importance of protecting what is unique about this place. Finally, we launched a capital drive — the VCS Capacity Campaign — with the goal of raising a minimum of $2 million to strengthen our ability to do this work in the next half-century.
How has the mission of the VCS evolved over the past 50 plus years?
We respond to the need at the time. We began with legal defense of land, and advocated for passage of zoning, coastal protection rules, and conservation commissions in all Island towns. Later, we advocated for the creation of the
Martha’s Vineyard Commission and the Land Bank. We launched the Island’s first recycling programs, and worked for years to conserve active farmland, an accomplishment that today provides the opportunity for our local food movement to grow.
Today, we continue the quiet work on the land protection and legal front, including the defense of conservation land at Moshup Trail from road building and development, where we recently had (unusual for us) a high-profile victory at the state Supreme Judicial Court. But we also have found ourselves working more in the public sphere, such as leading the charge to get a plastic bag ban passed at town meetings. Recently, we’ve found ourselves being asked to weigh in with testimony on a variety of contentious land use and environmental issues, ranging from broad issues, like climate change and the sustainability of our economy, to specific proposals, like building an artificial turf field at the high school and the clearing of a protected forest to build a solar farm.
What have been some of the most significant achievements of the VCS over its history?
We are particularly proud of achievements that you don’t see — no suburban sprawl at Katama Farm and Katama Airpark, no proliferation of private golf clubs in sensitive habitat, no second-home development at Waskosim’s Rock, no shopping mall at the Nobnocket site in Tisbury. Currently, our work (over a more than 20-year period) is shaping up as a significant new conservation sanctuary along Moshup Trail in Aquinnah. This place contains wild “coastal heathland” habitat of global importance. We hope that a recent legal victory will lead to even more conservation there.
What is some of the lesser-known work that the VCS does, or has done?
VCS publishes “Edible Wild Plants of Martha’s Vineyard” and the popular “Walking Trails of Martha’s Vineyard” guidebook, coming soon in a fifth edition. We sponsored early alternative-energy efforts with the Energy Resources Group, facilitated a dozen conservation restrictions protecting Tea Lane in Chilmark, worked on protecting our heritage of ancient roads and paths, advocated successfully for prohibition of docks along the North Shore, and championed organic lawn care and the recent fertilizer regulation bylaw.
Several towns voted on the plastic bag reduction bylaw this year. What’s next on this issue for VCS?
The plastic shopping bag reduction bylaw is part of the larger campaign to reduce plastics in our lives. The voters of the final town to act on the bylaw, Oak Bluffs, will be given that opportunity next spring. Meanwhile, we are working to reduce the waste generated by single-use plastic drinking water bottles through installation of water-bottle refilling stations at the schools. We recently had one put in at the high school, and it’s been a great success — the kids especially love that the machine has a running counter that tallies up all the disposable water bottles they’re saving! We’re currently looking for funding to take this program Island-wide.
What other local organizations do you work with to help promote environmental preservation on the Island?
VCS has always been about partnerships, including co-founding the Wakeman Conservation Center, the Martha’s Vineyard Water Alliance, the Wastewater Coalition, the Living Local Harvest Fest, and the Conservation Partnership of Martha’s Vineyard.
We also work with all the environmental protection and land trust colleagues, including the Wampanoag Tribe’s natural resources department.
What are the most important environmental issues the Island is facing right now, and what is VCS doing about them?
Adapting to climate change impacts and sea-level rise is the overarching issue that informs every other environmental issue. We have been working to educate town leaders, planners and other decisionmakers so that we are better prepared. What can we expect? More extreme-heat days will reduce soil moisture, increase fire risk, shrink wetlands, and have widespread ecosystem impacts, including water quality in our ponds. The range of invasive species and pests will change, challenging our native species. Warming of the ocean will cause the water to expand, and the resulting rise in base sea level will cause coastal erosion and inundation of wetlands. We need to be ready.
Our email newsletter, the Conservation Almanac, is also the source for discussing more localized environmental issues. This includes addressing issues that are eroding Island character and quality of life, and what we can do about it — particularly the impacts of our seasonal population spike and the resulting traffic and crowds.
How does your Partners in Conservation program work with other local businesses?
Partners in Conservation is a VCS membership program where we invite local businesses to join VCS. By building that relationship, many of these businesses learn about what we do, and conversely, we turn to them for support on various initiatives where a strong leadership voice from the business community can be so important.
How can the average Island resident better inform him- or herself of the various environmental issues affecting the Island?
The Conservation Almanac is an invaluable tool. I urge every Islander to subscribe on our website, vineyardconservation.org.
How can someone support VCS, or get more involved?
Go to our website, join the organization, receive our newsletters, and sign up for the free Conservation Almanac!