A conservation future for the Vineyard

Excerpted from ‘A Meeting of Land and Sea: Nature and the Future of Martha’s Vineyard’.

David Foster's new book explores the many landscapes of Martha's Vineyard. —Courtesy Yale University Press

Massachusetts offers an unusual and urgent opportunity for… conservation. Following widespread agricultural decline in the 19th century, the landscape reforested naturally, and … has more natural vegetation today than at nearly any time in the last three centuries… We urge the people and Commonwealth of Massachusetts to launch a bold, comprehensive initiative to conserve these precious [lands] and the ecological and social values they possess … Seldom does history provide us with second chances. Seldom does an investment in the infrastructure that supports both nature and human activity offer the promise to yield so much.

—Harvard Forest publication, “Wildlands and Woodlands: A Vision for the Forests of Massachusetts,” 2005

The Vineyard landscape is distinct in many ways — most notably in land values, pace of development toward full build-out, the assemblages of plants and animals, and past success in land protection — but it typifies many qualities of Massachusetts and the greater New England region, including their conservation challenges. They share the history of agricultural and woodlot land use, the ongoing growth of their forests, the tension among farmed, open, and wooded lands, the relentless sprawl of development, the fragmentation of the land by many small, private landownerships, and the looming threats from climate change, sea level rise, insect outbreaks, and other stresses. Nevertheless, the Vineyard has put itself into a particularly strong position to address the looming challenges due to its expansive breadth of conserved lands, its forward-looking and Island-wide planning efforts and knowledge base about the landscape, and the capacity for ongoing land protection and stewardship.

The single most important step in mitigating future environmental impacts is to conserve our natural and food-producing landscapes intact. Before we turn to the question of how the land should be managed, we must adhere to the bumper sticker designed by Islander Tweed Roosevelt — “Martha’s Vineyard: Save What Is Left” — so that we have a future to manage. To keep nature and farmlands intact is a powerful commitment that every citizen, landowner, and Vineyard advocate should make in order to mitigate future environmental change and support human well-being. The Vineyard landscape faces many environmental challenges. But whether we focus on climate change or other forces of nature or man, the most resilient landscape — one that is capable of both buffering and recovering from diverse impacts — is that of nature itself.

Overshadowed in our focus on climate change is the fact that the foremost threat to our environment — on the Vineyard and beyond — remains the direct destruction of nature and the conversion of forests and farms to other, damaging land uses. Every further reduction in the size of our natural areas and farms, or perforation of these by houses, driveways, and other hard infrastructure, undermines the ability of nature, and us, to cope with the changing world. We should do everything humanly possible to maximize the extent to which forests remain forests, farms continue as farms, and streams, wetlands, and ponds stay free from modification.

With all of its stellar attributes, the published Island Plan contains one flaw. The future condition that it projects in decadal maps that lead to complete build-out shows development as the only possible future for open space that is not currently conserved. That future ignores one of the Vineyard’s great strengths and most critical options — land protection and stewardship. The nearly 1,000 acres conserved since the plan was completed have already brightened the Island’s future by enlarging existing areas of permanent habitat, forging critical connections among others, securing more farmland, expanding the protection of Island aquifers and watersheds, guaranteeing public access to more landscape, and reducing the maximum potential number of houses by more than 200. Playing the current pace of land protection forward capitalizes on additional opportunities, and further reduces the consequences of build-out. Yet this “business as usual” future of ongoing conservation is not the Island’s inevitable destiny. The pace of land protection could slow. Or a determined effort to invest in the Vineyard’s natural infrastructure could increase it, and leave the Island even more intact than pessimistic predictions suggest. The Island bears substantial costs in coping with the degradation of its waters, importing more food and resources and exporting more waste products, and mitigating the damage from rising oceans. The more we conserve the remaining land, the lower these future costs will be.

As land protection efforts advance, we should also heed the Island Plan and target select properties for un-development. The Island discussion of un-development emerged to public view in a 1990s Gazette interview with James Lengyel, executive director of the Land Bank. The approach, which involves strategic removal of buildings and infrastructure to reverse the fragmentation and perforation of conserved landscapes, has been widely promoted by the Nature Conservancy’s Tom Chase, and employed at Duarte’s Pond by the Land Bank and on Chappaquiddick by Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation. The most notable example also centers on Chappaquiddick, at Hickory Cove, where numerous buildings have been removed in a project coordinated by the Land Bank. With the removal of most of the structures on land previously owned by the Self family, a magnificent landscape on Cape Poge Bay of ponds, marshes, upland forests, and meadows is now largely unencumbered or visually interrupted by built structures.

We must also look beyond designated conservation lands and strengthen the ecological value of adjoining and supporting lands. Backyards, bundles of neighborhood woods, lawns, fields, and even town centers, cemeteries, and the roadway margins have value as seminatural habitat that can be maintained with the same care that we apply to our conserved areas. Everything we do to reinforce nature in our own backyards and in places that we often take for granted in our daily lives augments our conservation landscape.

David R. Foster is the director of the Harvard Forest. He lives much of the time in West Tisbury. His book “A Meeting of Land and Sea” was published in January by Yale University Press. He will be sharing excerpts over the next four months in “Greening Martha.”