Nature is Changing: What Should We Do?

Saving Martha: Conservation in an uncertain future

The urge to conserve the natural world originates in loss: Until something valued and familiar is perceived as dwindling, who has any need for conservation? Vineyard cultures from the aboriginal to the European undoubtedly observed common-sense limits on how much to harvest from the wild, or when and how to do it. But for much of the history of Martha’s Vineyard, the human population was sparse enough, life was hard enough, and nature was plentiful enough so that little need was felt to set aside land just for the protection of nature.

The history of conservation on the Vineyard
But the waning of the world’s last remaining population of heath hen (the eastern race, once abundant, of the greater prairie chicken) on the Island triggered a shift of consciousness, at least among a few influential people. In 1908, the state acquired 1,600 central Vineyard acres of shrubland as habitat for the birds. That acreage, augmented by subsequent acquisitions, now forms the core of the 5,300-acre Manuel F. Correllus State Forest. The scrub oak and pitch pine barrens of Correllus, while homely enough to the average set of eyes, host a suite of rare species that may be unmatched anywhere else in the Commonwealth; it’s a biologist’s candy store. Although the initial purchase proved inadequate to save the heath hen, it led the way to a century of land conservation on the Island.

As the 1900s progressed and the Vineyard grew as a resort and as a community, multiple organizations balanced the resulting development by acquiring land and setting it aside as natural space for people to enjoy. Of course there has been more to conservation on the Vineyard than just this strategy. The steadfast legal advocacy and community activism of the Vineyard Conservation Society comes to mind, as does the effort, which has waxed and waned over time, to apply prescribed fire to the Vineyard sandplain, its distinctive ecology shaped by generations of frequent burning. But the dominant approach to conservation on the Vineyard is summed up in the essentially aesthetic framing of the mission statement of Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF), one of the Island’s leading land trusts: “To conserve the natural, beautiful, rural landscape and character of Martha’s Vineyard for present and future generations.”

There is a legitimate discussion to be had about how much land needs to be conserved, and how conservation should be prioritized relative to other land needs (most notably, these days, for affordable housing). But few would deny that conservation lands yield benefits for the community. Protected lands offer recreational opportunities and attractive scenery — amenities appreciated by residents and visitors alike. Undeveloped land of any sort improves water quality in our ponds by avoiding the nutrient inputs associated with septic systems and landscaping. And of course, conserved lands offer habitat for wildlife — the useful, the beautiful, and the obscure. With an outdoor-oriented community, resourceful staff and boards, and a generous donor base to draw on, Vineyard conservation groups have achieved enormous success; somewhere around a third of the Island’s dry land area is under some form on conservation protection.

Founded by legendary writer and publisher Henry Beetle Hough in 1959, Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation controls about 2,850 acres in easements and outright ownership. Under the leadership of Adam Moore, SMF’s executive director for eight years, the organization has steadily added conservation land “that people can enjoy and where nature can thrive,” says Mr. Moore. The organization partners routinely with other entities on projects such as establishing trail linkages. And Mr. Moore points out that despite the absence of explicit mention in the organization’s mission statement, management for ecological purposes is part of SMF’s work. He mentions, for example, efforts to control invasive plants, and a culvert expansion at Roth Woodlands aimed at improving stream connectivity and restoring more natural hydrology to the site. Mr. Moore was upbeat when asked about the ecological future of the Vineyard: Conservation groups “are well established, work well together, and enjoy strong public support.”

Another land-protection dynamo on the Island has been the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, a public entity that controls more than 3,300 acres. Publicly funded by a transfer fee on real estate transactions, the Land Bank’s revenue increases as land prices rise and as the rate of real estate activity increases — a clever, self-sustaining mechanism that allowed the Land Bank to add steadily to its holdings even as Vineyard real estate went red-hot at the beginning of this century.

Executive director James Lengyel, who has headed the organization’s staff for 27 of its 30 years, describes a carefully conceived policy to prioritize land for acquisition. Balancing input from town and Island-wide board members, the Land Bank places special emphasis on factors including coastal or pond frontage, large parcel size, proximity to existing Land Bank interests, trail potential, and farmland. A look at the Land Bank’s map of its holdings [] reveals that these priorities have been energetically pursued; the organization has made great strides toward a vision Mr. Lengyel describes as a “green archipelago — trail networks running shore to shore, leading a hiker from one exciting or interesting site to another” along the trails, like beads on a chain.

So, what’s next?
Wildlife of all kinds benefits, along with humans, from the protected acreage and the linkages that stitch it together. But land protection has its limits. For one thing, acquiring land interest means taking on responsibility for managing that land: maintaining trails and access points, posting boundaries, dealing with trash and encroachments, monitoring easements, taking action to protect rare species or sensitive environments. As the acreage controlled by an organization increases, the organization inevitably finds itself devoting more and more of its resources to maintaining what it already owns.

More important, land protection is by definition a place-based strategy and consequently is not by itself adequate to address threats that occur everywhere, shift location with time, or are intangible (such as a change in societal attitudes toward nature). To many Islanders engaged with nature at sufficiently close quarters, problems that land protection alone cannot solve are evident and intensifying. This vision is not based just on the predictions of climate scientists: If you work closely with nature, it’s hard to avoid the sense of an ecosystem drifting slowly but steadily out of whack.

A changing climate is already bringing to our region hotter, drier summers, more damaging storms, and generally more volatile weather. Warming ocean waters are stressing lobsters, and acidifying waters weaken other shellfish. The growing season is extending at both ends, benefitting some plants at the expense of others, and the seasonality of our birds and insects is changing, sometimes in unexpected ways. Nitrogen, some falling in the form of nitric acid in rain, some originating locally in fertilizer or septic system effluent, sickens our coastal ponds, fueling cycles of excessive growth followed by suffocating decay. Development is steadily converting natural habitat to other uses and fragmenting large wildlife populations into disconnected, more vulnerable smaller ones. Aggressive new species are colonizing the Vineyard, squeezing out native wildlife, reducing diversity, sometimes even producing new public health threats. The result is not just less nature, but an environment that is progressively less able to meet the needs of people and wildlife. The rules have changed.

A new purpose for conservation
To the naturalist, the hunter or fisher, or the biologist, the cumulative (and often synergistic) effects of processes such as these calls for a new purpose for conservation, focused on ecological functions rather than aesthetics and demanding strategies that go far beyond land protection. Conservation today often seems less like an optimistic exercise in preserving pristine examples of natural habitats, and more like managing an increasingly unfamiliar, increasingly disrupted ecosystem in an effort to minimize negative impacts on humans and wildlife alike.

For Elizabeth Durkee, the conservation agent for the town of Oak Bluffs for the past 22 years, it’s weather-related effects of climate change that pose the biggest worries. The town’s coastal roads and banks have taken a drubbing in recent years from storms. Ms. Durkee, whose job involves oversight of coastal projects, expressed deep concern that expected rising seas levels and stronger storms will make such damage worse and more frequent in the not-very-distant future. Not just human infrastructure but also low-lying habitats such as ponds and saltmarsh are at risk, along with the biological productivity they represent.

Climate change is simply “the most critical thing facing the Island,” Ms. Durkee believes. “It will affect everything: local food production, health, recreation.” Land protection could surely play a role in responding to climate change, for instance by protecting coastal land for marshes to “retreat” onto as sea levels rise. But for Ms. Durkee, what matters most would be coordinated regional planning: “Island communities need to get out of the pattern of reacting to damage that has occurred,” she argues, “and start being proactive in identifying and addressing vulnerable resources.”

For Rick Karney, the founder and director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, water quality issues are naturally paramount, in particular the condition of the Island’s coastal “great ponds.” His outlook tempers concern with optimism. “If we do nothing,” he predicts, “the fisheries, especially bay scallops, are going to be history,” succumbing to factors such as acidifying water, excessive nutrient enrichment, and predation from invasive species. And he notes that some emerging threats interact with each other synergistically: he cites a study showing that in overly acidic water, a certain species of coastal minnow loses its ability to relocate in response to harmfully low oxygen levels in its environment. “Things,” he predicts, “are going to get worse before they get better.”

But Mr. Karney sees grounds for optimism in the resilience of wildlife: “Populations that get stressed may be able to move to cleaner water,” he predicts, and species expanding their ranges from the south may be able to replace some of the species we’ll lose to warming waters. Island shellfish have shown ability to develop at least some resistance to newly arriving diseases, and the sheer fecundity of shellfish (an oyster may produce more than 100 million eggs) means that helpful adaptations can spread rapidly through a population. But ultimately, Mr. Karney says, it’s a social question. “People on this Island are pretty sharp,” he says, and surely capable of making behavioral or regulatory changes to reduce locally caused impacts to our aquatic resources.

Entomologist Paul Goldstein has spent most of his life studying Vineyard insects, especially our lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), an experience that leaves him struggling to find grounds for optimism about the Vineyard’s unique mix of wildlife. “I don’t like thinking of myself as a scientific undertaker,” he wrote in an email, but “I don’t see much evidence that we’ve learned from our mistakes … it’s hard to document the disappearance of so many species and ignore it.”

Foremost among our ecological worries, in Mr. Goldstein’s view, would be “invasive species … and straight-up habitat loss and fragmentation. As an Island, the Vineyard is especially vulnerable to unintentional introductions” such as the winter moth, responsible for extensive forest defoliation following its accidental introduction here, likely when (flightless) females were transported to the Island on firewood.

‘People protect what they care about’
But echoing a recurring theme, Mr. Goldstein maintains that “the underlying threats … aren’t ecological, they’re sociological…. We can’t combat ecological threats if we don’t educate people about them and what it takes to mitigate them. No community can be expected to invest resources needed to solve problems without maintaining an informed understanding of the problems to begin with.” And that goal actually seems possible, in a small community that values its unique flavor and its natural resources. “The fact is that if I didn’t cultivate at least a core of optimism,” Mr. Goldstein writes, “I wouldn’t be doing this stuff [studying insects].”

Tom Chase, a lifelong Vineyarder and director of conservation lands for the Massachusetts chapter of The Nature Conservancy, has accomplished more than his share of land protection work, and still views this strategy as important. He is influenced by a metaphor advanced by a Conservancy colleague, the ecologist Mark Anderson: “Save on the stage, not the actors.” Mr. Chase predicts that “we’re going to lose a lot of species in coming decades, and the arrival of new species may not keep up with these losses.” But if we can protect enough land representing enough variety in elevation, moisture, microclimate, soil type, and other factors, Mr. Chase argues, new natural communities will eventually emerge to fill them. And if we are thoughtful in how we manage these protected places, we can ensure that those communities retain a distinctly Vineyard composition.

But Mr. Chase echoes the recurring theme that contemporary conservation is as much a social project as a biological one, and the risks are cultural as well as biological. “We’re losing the stories that connect people to the land,” he says, as more people with deep Island roots are displaced, and as even Vineyarders tend to abandon outdoor pursuits like hunting, fishing, or simply walking or sitting in natural settings.

“People protect what they care about,” he asserts, “and they care about what they know and understand.” Unless we can foster an appreciation for the Vineyard’s unique habitats and characteristic plants and animals, “the Island will end up looking like every other place in the Northeast.”

As the ability of our natural environment to function effectively diminishes, the future ecological health of the Vineyard depends more and more on people and organizations that we may not think of as conservationists: the shellfishing community working to maintain viable shellfish populations in bays and ponds; municipalities planning to protect infrastructure and sensitive habitat from storms and sea-level rise; fire departments learning to prevent and respond to intense wildfires in arid, flammable habitat; educators and parents giving Island kids early and enjoyable exposure to Vineyard habitats; even, as Tom Chase argues, private landowners, who can often choose between action that preserves the distinctive wildlife of the Vineyard and action that dilutes the Island’s characteristics. (“Nature,” Mr. Chase points out, “doesn’t care about the legal status of land.”)

A hundred years from now, barring unforeseeable catastrophes, the Vineyard will still be considered a beautiful place. More of it will be developed, to be sure; conservation organizations may have faded way, or new ones may come into being. But large tracts of land and extensive trail systems will likely be intact, as a result of the hard work of generations of conservationists. Many iconic vistas and locations will still be accessible to the public. The Island’s protected open spaces will continue to be an amenity for year-rounders and a strong attraction for tourism.

But in all probability, many uncommon or highly specialized species will have disappeared, and overall biodiversity will have declined. Natural communities, both on land and in the water, will be “weedier,” increasingly dominated by a small number of highly successful, often non-native, generalist plants and animals. Fisheries may have dwindled or even disappeared (though, if we’re lucky, some new ones will have emerged). Human infrastructure, especially along shorelines, will be increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain. Risk of severe wildfire will have increased. We’ll likely have new diseases and insect pests to worry about. Our waters may be less productive.

The Islanders (and the tourists) of those future times may not notice the changes — it’s human nature to assume that what you personally remember is normal. But if the people I spoke with for this article agree that the conservation game is more difficult and more complex, they also agree that the trajectory of the future remains uncertain. While its effects can’t be predicted with precision, the ability of nature to reinvent itself is surely a factor working in our favor. And while local responses can’t address all the environmental stresses we face, they can mitigate at least some of them — if we make the effort.

Compared to today, the future Vineyard seems destined to be a poorer place biologically, with an ecosystem that will be less able to meet the needs of both humans and wildlife. Exactly how much poorer, though, remains to be seen, and will depend on what Islanders — all of us — care about, and how deeply we care.

Matt Pelikan works as an ecologist for The Nature Conservancy and writes a column on natural history, “Wild Side,” for The Martha’s Vineyard Times. He enjoys studying wildlife in all its forms.

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