Dog owners put on notice at Trade Wind Fields Preserve

Monitor will enforce regulations to protect threatened flora and fauna; disobedient dog owners face possible arrest.

Dog party at Trade Winds. – Barry Stringfellow

Over the past 20 years, finding a balance between conservation and recreation at Trade Wind Fields Preserve has been a fraught, and at times contentious, process. Although Trade Wind Fields Preserve — “Tradewinds” in local parlance — is an operational grass airstrip, the 71.8-acre parcel has become a de facto town square where dogs and humans socialize on a daily basis. It’s an informal group, but close enough to have its own Facebook page with 267 members, with posts about dogs for adoption, health updates on dogs and owners, and now, expressions of disapproval for new Land Bank efforts to enforce longstanding, and often overlooked, rules against dogs and their owners on the runway and taxiway at the grass airfield. The runway and taxiway are home to rare flora and fauna, three of which are designated “special concern” or “threatened” by the National Heritage Endangered Species Program (NHESP).

Matthew Dix, Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank foreman, has been trying for years to educate dog owners about the ecological damage the land — classified as a sandplain rescue zone — has sustained from increasing dog-walking traffic. His goal is to get people and their pooches to stick to the two miles of Land Bank trails that ring the property, and to stop them from crossing the trails that bisect the runway and the taxiway.

Over the years, Mr. Dix has tried various signage to inform people why the runway and taxiway are off limits.

The first signs gently asked people not to cross, with detailed ecological explanations. They were ineffective.

A subsequent series of “DO NOT ENTER” signs inflamed more than they informed. They were often uprooted, and their message was often dismissed.

As The Times reported in a Nov. 5, 2014, article, “Land Bank seeks to curb dog walkers at Trade Wind Fields Preserve,” Mr. Dix held a series of meetings with dog owners to explain the rationale behind the Land Bank policy.

Although the conversations were cordial, subsequent signage was also plucked from the sandplain soil, and the message frequently ignored.

Now Mr. Dix is implementing a new strategy, a combination of more carrot and more stick, to garner cooperation.

Next week, “Users Guide” flyers will be posted and handed out to dog owners. The pamphlet shows the six species of flora and fauna that inhabit the runway and taxiway areas at Trade Winds, including sandplain blue-eyed grass and the purple tiger beetle, both listed as of special concern by the NHESP, and purple needlegrass, which is listed as threatened.

The “Users Guide” states, “Keep in mind that Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission allows people to walk their dogs on this property but does not consider Trade Wind Fields Preserve to be a dog park.”

“Rules of Use” will also be posted and distributed to dog owners. In addition to restating the runway and taxiway policy, dog walkers are reminded to pick up after their pooches and to properly dispose of the bags. The Land Bank will be adding four more doggie-bag stations in the coming weeks. There will also be additional waste bins, which the Land Bank will maintain.

Underscoring the resolve of this new Land Bank campaign, a new “three strikes” policy is also explained in the “Rules of Use.” First offense is a “friendly reminder,” second offense is a warning, and a third offense results in a call to Oak Bluffs Police, “who will respond and cite you for trespass.” According to Massachusetts state law, the maximum penalty for trespassing on private property is a $100 fine and up to 30 days in jail.

“It’s not so much a change of any policy, we’re just conducting a facelift of the property visually and providing a little more amenities like dog-waste receptacles, and then providing very clear signage about the consequences of not obeying the rules,” Mr. Dix said in an email to The Times on Monday.

Boots on the ground

At the beginning of this month, the Land Bank hired Patty Culkins of Edgartown to step into the breech and be the bearer of the “friendly reminder.”

“So far, the reception is pretty good,” she told The Times on Wednesday. “I just introduce myself, ask if they’re regulars and remind them of the guidelines and what the Land Bank is hoping to achieve. I also explain that they are going to restore those trails that cross the runway. Also, it’s still an active runway, so following the rules is also safer for dogs and their owners.”

Ms. Culkins said she’s impressed with the efforts of the Land Bank to accommodate dog owners. “Right after we had that last big snowstorm, the Land Bank had people out here specifically to plow the trail for them. I think that’s pretty neat.”

Ms. Culkins acknowledged that change will not come easily. “I met with the 3:30 group,” she said, referring to a close-knit group of dog owners who have been gathering for years at 3:30 pm. “There definitely are things that will need to be worked on.”

Ms. Culkins said most of the resistance comes from people who want to keep walking on well-established paths that cross the runway path, rather than backtrack along the perimeter, which is technically their only option by Land Bank rules. “I know people like to go in a circle and that they’ve been doing it a long time,” she said. “But they also are appreciative of the area, and want to take care of it.”

No easy solution

This week, The Times surveyed the 3:30 group at the trailhead on the path from the parking lot, amid a swirling vortex of canine energy. Many expressed a desire to coexist in harmony with the Land Bank and the creatures of the sandplain rescue zone. Many also expressed surprise at the new penalties for noncompliance.

“It’s not an easy solution,” Michael Ferrone of Oak Bluffs said. “I think the conservation aspect is a great idea. I don’t think any dog owner has any qualms with that. There’s also a lot of conservation laws, both federal and state. The runway is where the big dogs can run free and romp. How do you stop that?”

“Oh, wow,” Vasha Brunelle of Vineyard Haven said, reading the “Rules of Use.” Ms. Brunelle pointed to a path bisecting the taxiway. “If I’m here, and my friend is straight over there, I’m supposed to walk a big loop to get there? Most of the group are over 60; some are in their 80s, and taking the shortcuts across the runway is part of their routine. They can’t make it all the way around.”

“Sometimes you go in the middle because the paths are icy,” Ilka List of Oak Bluffs said. “I think the Land Bank should be more concerned with keeping the pitch pines from encroaching more on the fields.”

“We can take donations if anybody gets a fine,” Mary Renczkowski of Tisbury joked, referring to the potential trespassing charge for a third strike. “I’ve been coming here for 20 years, it’s not anything new. I understand they’re trying to protect flora and fauna on the runways. But why are planes allowed to land if they’re trying to protect? I walk on the runway in the winter because it’s the only place that gets sun. I am being civilly disobedient and I admit it. When I’m in jail, I hope my friends will walk my dog.”

“There’s nobody here that would work against species preservation,” Bob Lehman of Tisbury said. Mr. Lehman has been a daily attendee of the 3:30 group for 10 years. “By the same token, there should be an obligation on their part to be sensitive to people who use it. What provision did they have for input of ideas as a prelude to this? You’d think they’d try to couch this in user-friendly terms. The few times [over the years] they have asked for input, it seemed like a chance for us to vent so they could move on and do what they had in mind to begin with. The concept of stopping and backtracking is absurd. That’s not going to happen. The other irony is they complain about the cross-trails, but they were deer runs long before we came here with dogs. We want to be in harmony with this place. I’m hard-pressed to see how this is a conflict. We’re not coming down here with flamethrowers and defoliating the place. Let us be. We pick up the poop. We’ve organized cleanups and picked up trash. There’s a mindfulness with the people that come down here.”

“I would expect everybody here is for protecting species, but at the same time, there should be a happy medium,” Nikki Patrizzi said. “Were there any public meetings about this?”

“I spoke with [Ms. Culkins] once. She has an incredibly tough job,” Lee Taberner of Oak Bluffs said. “I don’t know if it’s going to change anything.”