Filmmaker wants a shot at visiting Nomans Land

Federal agency seeks public comment on proposal.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is looking for public comment on a plan to bring New England cottontail to the former military training ground. — Courtesy Libby Herland

The 628-acre island off the southern coast of Martha’s Vineyard is home to terns, cormorants, butterflies, and bombs — lots and lots of them, unexploded munitions from World War II–era military training.

So it’s no surprise that the public is forbidden from the picturesque landscape known as Nomans Land, which was gifted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1998 by the U.S. Navy as a wildlife refuge.

Now the federal agency is seeking public comment on opening up the island to commercial photographers on a limited basis, said Elizabeth “Libby” Herland, refuge manager. The comment period runs through June 26, and is required when a change is considered to the refuge’s comprehensive plan.

“We’re not talking about the next James Bond movie or Mark Wahlberg movie being filmed there,” she said. “We’re not looking to open it up to Hollywood.”

Alex Bushe, a seasonal West Tisbury resident, made the initial request for a documentary he’s filming about Nomans Land. Mr. Bushe told The Times he’s interested in showcasing the habitat, natural resources, and history of Nomans Land.

“I can’t let him out on the island with me or with staff without this permission,” Ms. Herland said.

During World War II, while there was a U.S. Naval Air Station on Martha’s Vineyard, Nomans was one of several spots used for target practice. That makes the island potentially dangerous, because the unexploded ordnance can ignite even after all these years. Danger signs are posted on Nomans, and, from time to time, trespassers have to be chased away.

“This is not about opening it up to the public,” Ms. Herland said. “The public is still going to be prohibited from going to Nomans Land.” The filmmakers would be restricted to shore areas and paths that have been cleared, she said.

The public input is going to direct the next steps, Ms. Herland said. “That may change our thinking, if they come up with reasons why we shouldn’t allow this use,” she said.

Mr. Bushe told The Times his fascination with Nomans Land, once used for farming and fishing by those who lived there, began when he was a child. He has spoken to dozens of people about the island, including descendants of Joshua Crane, the last inhabitant before it was taken over by the Navy. (Mr. Bushe said he’s always looking to talk to more people about the island. He can be reached by email at

“I know by talking to people on the Vineyard, there is so much interest in Nomans Land,” he said. “It’s because you can’t go there. That makes it mysterious.”

There is a great deal of lore about the island. For example, there’s a runestone that includes an inscription with Leif Erickson’s name. Was it actually etched by the Viking explorer, or is it a hoax?

“Some people think Joshua Crane carved it as a prank because he was a jokester,” Mr. Bushe said. “It would be a shame for it to be lost because of ocean levels rising. Even if it’s not true, it is a representation of our fascination with the Vikings. It is part of the local history.”

Just how Nomans Land got its name is also a mystery. Some believe it is shortened from Tequenoman, a Wampanoag sachem, while others believe it’s a name given by English settlers because early deeds refer to Nomansland (all one word), which is a village in Wiltshire, England.

“That’s probably the real explanation, because the English towns of Chilmark and Tisbury are close by,” Mr. Bushe said. “But it’s all up for dispute.”

In order for the limited access to Nomans Land to move ahead, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has to do a compatibility determination. Public uses have to be “appropriate and compatible” and cannot “detract from the purpose of the refuge.”

Both the town of Chilmark and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) have been notified of the public comment period because both have an interest in Nomans Land.

The draft of the compatibility determination is available online at, and comments can be emailed to Ms. Herland at, or mailed to 73 Weir Hill Road, Sudbury, MA 01776, or faxed to 978-443-2898.