When Mike Whittemore was a kid living in Framingham, he would take frequent fishing trips to Martha’s Vineyard with his father to search for that legendary striper action the Island is known for. While on one of his excursions, Whittemore began to take note of all the unique and ecologically brilliant landscapes around the Island, and the immense variety of flora and fauna that inhabit them.
Although Whittemore said he has always been interested in the natural world, coming to Martha’s Vineyard as a child gave him a new perspective on the importance of conservation and protection of the innumerable ecological treasures here.
Now, Whittemore is serving as the Island’s land steward for the Nature Conservancy (TNC) — a charitable environmental organization that has more than 1 million members and protects more than 119 million acres of land worldwide.
On Martha’s Vineyard, TNC owns and maintains more than 1,000 acres of land, and holds conservation restrictions on 560 acres, with 240 acres being maintained alongside partners like
The Trustees of Reservations and the Sandplain Grassland Network.
Included in the owned and conservation-restricted land are some of the Island’s rarest and most diverse ecosystems, like the treeless coastal outwash of the sandplain grasslands at the Katama Airfield and Herring Creek.
Here, rare species of plants like Nantucket shadbush and bushy frostweed inundate the expansive plain, and endangered birds like northern harriers and short-eared owls hide in the scrub, searching for rodents.
According to Whittemore, around 90 percent of the world’s sandplain grasslands are concentrated on the Vineyard and Nantucket. “It’s an incredibly rare and diverse ecosystem that you can’t find in many other places besides the Cape and Islands,” Whittemore said. “We are lucky to have the opportunity to support the grasslands and protect those landscapes from development and degradation.”
With grasslands shrinking across the range, Whittemore said, TNC and its partner’s efforts are not just locally essential, but are an important initiative worldwide.
“These are global efforts that are necessary for the survival of this particular ecosystem. There are many species that exist in the sandplain grasslands that don’t exist anywhere else in the world,” Whittemore said.
Whittemore graduated from Ohio University with a degree in conservation, and he said that after starting at TNC two years ago, his job description hasn’t changed much. “My goal really is to protect land and the life that inhabits it,” Whittemore said.
Currently, Whittemore is stationed at the Hoft Farm Field Station, adjacent to Duarte’s Pond, where a freshly renovated building surrounded by dense wilderness overlooks shimmering water.
The field station isn’t just an idyllic location for Whittemore to work and spend his time, it is also a valuable resource for studying some of the local wildlife, and testing conservation practices before heading out into the field. “We have our own local plant nursery here, where we have some shadbush and other species that are unique to this area,” Whittemore said. “This allows us to study some of these varieties without having to travel very far.”
Although Whittemore said he has worked in a number of different biomes around the U.S., Martha’s Vineyard holds a special place in his heart and in his field notes. “This Island is so incredibly unique. There is so much conservation work to do here, and the people I work with make it even better,” Whittemore said.
Today, with climate change causing extreme weather events and environmental catastrophe destroying many of the ecosystems home to countless rare species, Whittemore said pollution and habitat destruction are two of the world’s “greatest existential threats.”
“I think nature has a lot of lessons to teach us,” Whittemore said. “One of those lessons is that every action has a reaction, and everything is very closely related.”
Whittemore said his ultimate goal is to secure a future where humans and nature thrive together in unity, and where people aren’t separated from the world they live in.
“I think it’s so important to connect with your environment. If you are separated from nature, you are separated from a huge part of yourself,” Whittemore said.