Greening Martha: Managing a Vineyard conservation future

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

The Wasque landscape stands as an ever-dynamic and awe-inspiring enigma for all who wander its shores and those who seek to predict its future. — Carl Treyz

Our woodlots, of course, have a history, and we may often recover it for a hundred years back, though we do not…. Yet if we attended more to the history of our lots we should manage them more wisely.

—Henry D. Thoreau, October 1860

As we turn from protecting as much of the Vineyard as possible to caring for it, Henry Thoreau’s admonition should guide our deliberations and actions. Thoreau recognized that history is embedded in every landscape. As he pondered the land’s future and evaluated the land-use practices shaping his landscape around Concord, he admonished his neighbors to learn from and manage with the history of the land. Knowing what processes have shaped a given woodlot, field, wetland, or shore in the past, we can better anticipate how it might change in the future. We can also better identify what approaches to take if we seek to sustain the present condition, replicate it elsewhere, or shape it in different directions.

On the Vineyard, important lessons emerge from such a historical perspective. Most important, the fields and meadows, heathlands and shrublands, bottoms and scrub-oak plains, and majestically contorted oaks all arose, and are still recovering, from a recent history of intensive use. These landscapes support birds, butterflies, sights, and sounds that we cherish today. By acknowledging the actions that produced these scenes and ecosystems — the felling of trees, grazing of pastures, mowing of fields, planting of crops, and a myriad of related environmental changes — we can come to value farms, actively worked woodlots, and timberlands for more than the local products they yield. Each can be embraced for its beauty, its resonance with Island history, and its ecological values. These culturally contingent ecosystems have value, and deserve our care.

History has also taught us that we must anticipate, cope with, and frequently accept change and surprises. Views will disappear, cherished lands will erode into the sea, oaks and pines may die; our favorite bird, wildflower, and butterfly populations may wax or wane, and new species will undoubtedly arrive. That the Vineyard landscape will inevitably continue to change is due to many factors: Every inch of the Island is recovering from past events, and will continue this rebound far into the future; hurricanes, nor’easters, erosion, ice damage, insects, pathogens, and more will keep coming to these shores; the climate will change and the ocean will rise; and lands will be managed by thousands of different owners in diverse ways. Some of these changes are predictable, such as sea-level rise or the successional dynamics of our unmanaged fields or young woods. But much of it — the arrival of the next 1635-category hurricane, a new insect pest, a breeding pair of coyotes, or proposal to develop a pristine landscape — will surprise us. Some we can prepare for; some we can regulate, or vote on; others we will simply need to cope with. But by expecting and remaining open to change, we can better anticipate, accept, and accommodate it.

Finally, as we turn to address the many changes in front of us, we should learn from our past successes and failures. These tell us that success more often accompanies efforts that work with and accommodate nature rather than struggle against it. Past efforts to confront or alter the course of natural processes have more frequently failed than succeeded. Often they exacerbate a perceived problem that we had hoped to eliminate. Good examples of this include coastal armament. In an effort to reduce erosion on a favored locale or the land of one owner who can afford it, we simply divert that energy of the ocean to the adjoining property, and interrupt the natural replenishment of eroding areas with much-needed sand. Another is our attempt to “improve” nature following disturbances like hurricanes, coastal erosion, or insect outbreaks. In most cases, such efforts to fix nature are misinformed and cause additional damage.

Overall, we could benefit from less hubris. Except for our actions to conserve it from ourselves, nature doesn’t need us to care for it. It is rarely improved by our actions, except in our own view and for our own very local benefit. We would be well advised to heed this lesson before acting. The slopes of dead trees that spanned Middle Ridge in Chilmark and West Tisbury following the caterpillar outbreaks of 2006 to 2009,and the collapsing cliffs of oaks and pines at Wasque after the breach of the barrier beach at Norton Point in 2007, have been extremely well-treated by being left alone. Neither situation requires our pity or our assistance. Despite their initially shocking appearance, both landscapes still comprise thriving ecosystems, and embrace magnificent examples of natural processes of recovery and adjustment that will yield new and different ecosystems. The forests of dead oaks are rapidly regrowing, with a bit more beech and less oak. The Wasque landscape stands as an ever-dynamic and awe-inspiring enigma for all who wander its shores and those who seek to predict its future. How long will it take for the next breach to occur? When will the Schifter and Wacks houses need to be torn down before they fall into the ocean? What better course of action could we take for either Wasque or Middle Ridge than simply allowing nature to take its course?

The approach that I apply and advise in “A Meeting of Land and Sea” to conservation management seeks to balance pragmatism, human needs and desires, and nature’s impulses. It acknowledges the constraints imposed by laws and regulations, ownership and institutional differences, and conservation priorities. It is guided by keen attention to the ecological history of the land, and especially the following questions: What processes have shaped this landscape? How have such conditions been achieved in the past? And what future directions might this area take? As such, this approach draws heavily from local tradition and the knowledgeable people who have worked the land. But it is rooted in science and experience-based projections of what may come to pass under different scenarios of management and future conditions. And it demands regular observations to test the ideas and study the consequences of the approach employed.

To balance human needs and natural conditions in conserving the Vineyard, we can think in terms of three broad management approaches, presented in two recent papers — “Wildlands and Woodlands: A Vision for the New England Landscape” and “A Food Vision for New England.” This integrated approach combines hands-off management of a limited portion of the land (wildlands) with active management through forestry (woodlands) or agriculture (farmlands), undertaken by people who produce crops, livestock, timber, cordwood, and other products for a living. Combining active and passive management encourages a diverse mosaic of conditions and enables conservation lands to address multiple societal needs — recreation, scenic beauty, food, water, wood resources, biodiversity, and local employment.

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 three months in “Greening Martha.”