50 Years of Land Conservation -July 2013

by: Joshua Balling

photography by: Jim Powers

From the walking trails of Sanford Farm and Tupancy Links, to the rolling hills of the middle moors – including 131 newly-acquired acres at Norwood Farm – to the tupelo forests of Squam Swamp and the Windswept and Milestone cranberry bogs, the Nantucket Conservation Foundation protects nearly 9,000 acres of open space across the island.

Aside from preserving the scenic vistas and fragile ecosystems forever, the Foundation – celebrating its 50th anniversary this year – has made all the property available to the public with varying degrees of accessibility. In all, about half of the island’s land is held in permanent conservation by a number of groups including the Land Bank and Land Council. The Foundation is the oldest and by far the largest, overseeing about 35 percent of Nantucket’s open space.

“This organization was built on a passion for open space...” -Jim Lentowski
“The mission of most land trusts across the country is to protect the character of a place, the rare resources of a place, those lands people have long taken for granted,” said executive director Jim Lentowski, who joined the organization in 1971.

“We don’t think much about the rejuvenation one gets walking in these protected areas, but you see guys driving around with fishing rods on the roof, and they’re getting recreational pleasure. It’s also a mind-healing chance to let go of the cares and woes we all carry around on a daily basis. It all underscores how remarkable a place Nantucket is, and validates the efforts that have gone on over the years to maintain as much of the natural character people expect to find when they get here.”

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation was formed in 1963 by two men: Roy Larsen and Rip Nelson. In the early days, Larsen – the former chairman of Time-Life and Henry Luce’s original partner – financed the bulk of the expenses himself. Nelson, a retired banker, did the legal work. Larsen also put his money where his mouth was when promoting conservation on the island, acquiring and donating more than 1,600 acres to the Foundation.

“This organization was built on a passion for open space, a passion shared by many. Fortunately, its founders had the foresight to realize if they got people together, and started talking about conservation, a contagion would follow. Why can’t we protect that land? Why don’t we try? Much to their surprise, they were a lot more successful than they anticipated,” Lentowski said.

Yet they started small. The Foundation’s first acqui- sition was a small bird sanctuary near Jetties Beach – just four-tenths of an acre at the intersection of South Beach Street and Bathing Beach Road. It was donated to the organization by Frances Cook, whose home perched high above the sanctuary on the Cliff.

“Roy was the consummate salesman. He had an aura that made people want to part with their money, or in Nantucket’s case, their land. He could stand on a street corner and greet half the town, then grab a few people by the collar and remind them that the Foundation needed their property. He was the business head of the group. Rip, on the other hand, was the spark, the keeper of the register, a boiler-room guy. He came to Nantucket to retire but ended up getting involved in many causes,” Lentowski said.

Later, Walter Beinecke became involved. The man largely credited with converting Nantucket into the world-class resort destination it is today brokered the deal that landed the Foundation the Milestone Cran- berry Bog. Other early contributors to the Foundation’s work included island attorney Bob Mooney, Boston attorney John Lyman – the group’s first president – and Alcon Chadwick of Nantucket Bank.

“All these guys were community-spirited 50 years ago. Nantucket was a very small town, and everyone knew each other. Similar interests got together. Walter certainly saw what was happening off-island, and had with others the concern that Nantucket would at some point get so popular it would get out of control. They realized there was a need to protect the open space everyone enjoyed, sooner rather than later,” Lentowski said.

Upon Larsen’s retirement in 1973, the baton was passed to Alfred “Teeny” Sanford, who worked to acquire additional properties and advocate for responsible stewardship of the island. Over the ensuing three decades, the Foundation accumulated – through gift and purchase – properties in what became many of the most visited and photographed areas of Nantucket: Coatue, Sanford Farm, Tupancy Links, Head of the Plains, Eel Point, the Middle Moors and the “Serengeti” off Milestone Road.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. I come from Boston, and a construction background. I’ve never known half a town to be conservation land. It’s outstanding. That rescued land would have had buildings, shopping malls and amusement parks on it,” said Tom Lennon, the Foundation’s director of finance and administration. “Other recreation-bound places have made strip malls out of every place. Nantucket has a natural scene that’s incredible, really. Even with the building that’s gone on, it hasn’t changed all that appreciably. I’ve been on-island for 20 years, and in our neighborhood, a few places have gone up, but the rest still has a beautiful view, and the ecosystem is intact.”

Led by bog manager Tom Larrabee Sr., the Foundation’s cranberry operation is yet another arm of the organization. Its stewardship of the island’s two remaining commercial cranberry bogs began in 1968, when Larsen, Beinecke and Arthur Dean, a New York lawyer, joined forces to purchase the assets of what was then known as Nantucket Cranberries and incorporated the Milestone Road cranberry bog’s total of nearly 1,000 acres into the holdings of the Foundation. The Windswept Cranberry Bog, a man-made bog built at the turn of the century, was purchased by the Foundation in August of 1980. This property totals 105 acres of marsh, woodland and bog. In total, 237 acres are being actively cultivated, with the remainder set aside for conservation use.

“Through the cranberry operation, we’re maintaining an agricultural tradition that has existed for 160 years, one that requires constant attention. If not for the extremely devoted work of the staff out there, we probably wouldn’t have cranberries right now,” Lentowski said.

“We struggle to find ways to perpetuate the bog operation as a symbol of Nantucket’s agricultural history. With the overabundance of cranberries in this country today, it makes you wonder if it’s worth it. But it’s such an important part of the island’s agricultural tradition, the board is determined to make it work.”

Including the cranberry operation, the Foundation has a full-time staff of 19 people, and adds another 14 or so in the summer, including seasonal interns for the science department, summer rangers and property-maintenance workers.

The Foundation’s largest single acquisition moneywise was the University of Massachusetts’ Nantucket Field Station in Quaise, today under the direction of Sarah Oktay, which it acquired in 2003 for $20 million. Grace Grossman, who died in 2004 at 80, brokered the deal to keep the 110 acres of pristine saltmarsh, rolling uplands and Nantucket Harbor waterfront out of the hands of developers forever, and preserve it as a living classroom for scientists from around the world and students of all ages. While some collaborative work among the island’s science and conservation organizations was already occurring there, much more has taken place since the Foundation took control of the property and Oktay arrived.

Last December, the organization acquired one of the island’s largest and most environmentally-important parcels of open space, paying the Jensen family $19 million for Norwood Farm: 207 acres in the middle moors it had been eying for years. As part of the deal, 76 acres was later transferred to the Land Bank.

The sprawling property, bordered to the west, south and east by extensive conservation holdings, was until the acquisition the largest unprotected, privately-owned parcel on Nantucket. It had been kept in an undeveloped condition since 1964 under the Jensen family’s stewardship but was put up for sale last year for $26 million.

The newly-protected conservation area lies at the doorstep of Altar Rock, with road frontage on Polpis Road and Almanack Pond Road. Its natural features include forested uplands, shrublands, grasslands, rolling moorlands, kettlehole ponds and extensive wildflower habitats. The abundant freshwater wetlands and prime agricultural soils played an important role in the lives of the island’s first human inhabitants, the Wampanoags, the later English settlement and the advancement of island farming, including some of the island’s earliest cranberry bogs, Lentowski said.

Yet the Foundation does a lot more than simply acquire open space. Its mission has been evolving for years, from acquisition to stewardship, as conservation organizations have slowly protected open space across the island. That will continue into the future on an even broader scale, Lentowski said, with so few highly-desirable parcels remaining for preservation.

Foundation scientists, led by Karen Beattie, work year-round studying the flora and fauna of its proper- ties so they can best manage them in a natural way to ensure they remain exactly as they are. In a nutshell, the job of the Science and Stewardship Department is to conduct research on the properties’ various ecosystems, and develop management plans that will allow the Foundation to be responsible stewards of some of the most threatened habitats and species remaining in the United States.

“Like any collection of items, the properties need to be inventoried, to find out which are valuable, rare, and need to be preserved. Some are far more delicate than others,” Lentowski said. “There are no guidelines for any of this work. We’re making new science as we go. Judgment calls as to which species are important and which aren’t have to be made. That’s the challenge of doing what we’re in the business to do: Protecting this rare landscape so people can enjoy it, so there’s
some human activity on it, so it can complement everything else that’s going on.”

Past inventories of Nantucket’s plant and animal populations have documented that the island has the greatest concentration of rare and endangered species of any community in the state, with populations of bushy rockrose, sandplain blue-eyed grass, St. Andrew’s cross and Eastern silvery aster that in some cases are found nowhere else in the Northeast.

But it’s no longer enough to simply protect a property by leaving it alone. Research has indicated that the preservation of certain rare habitats – like the island’s sandplain grasslands that once supported thousands of sheep – may require active land management in order to ensure their continued existence. Those practices include sheep-grazing and prescribed-burning programs to stop the spread of scrub oak and other invasive plant species throughout its grasslands and heathlands.

“The real purpose of the science department is protecting what is rare and unique. Our management plans take a hard look at each area of our properties, identifying things that cause ecological stresses – anything from overuse, like driving too much on the beach, invasive species or lack of management – and come up with objectives to address those stresses,” said Beattie, who started with the Foundation in 1992, essentially as a one-person department.

“The thing that’s so cool and unique about Nantucket is that no one has ever just let it be. Ever since the glacier left, the natives burned it and cleared it, then the Europeans arrived, and brought sheep. No other place in the Northeast has rare coastal plains like these that haven’t been overdeveloped,” she continued. “If we don’t do management, eventually it will all turn into red maple swamp or scrub oak and pitch-pine barren. We need management to maintain the mosaic. We’re not trying to turn all 9,000 acres back to sandplain grassland. It’s the diversity that provides for the unique ecosystem.”

The Foundation – which has been conducting pre- scribed burns on the island since the 1980s – is also spearheading an effort to address both the destructive and beneficial properties of fire. Working with a number of other groups, including the Nantucket Fire Department, it has developed a comprehensive wildfire risk-reduction plan for its holdings. It involves creating firebreaks to give firefighters an opportunity to contain small fires before they become large blazes, cutting brush and removing pine trees to reduce the fuel load, and conducting prescribed burns to remove the flammable vegetation.

The organization also has an extensive shorebird-monitoring program each summer along its beach-front properties to assist in the protection of threatened avian species.

Nine years ago, the Foundation undertook an extensive inventory of the island’s remaining open space, targeting the properties most in need of protection, and those it would like to add to augment existing holdings. Norwood Farm was near the top of the list; as was the UMass field station; along with 270 acres of sandplain grasslands and coastal heathlands on Eel Point protected by the Nantucket Land Council through a $14 million development restriction in 2006; Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm, half of which the Land Council protected through a $6 million conservation restriction in 2004; and the Coffin family’s 119-acre property off Milestone Road in Sconset, home to the Old Sconset Golf Course, acquired by the Land Bank and Sconset Trust last year for $16 million.

That leaves just two significant properties remaining on the watch-list of island conservation groups, Lentowski said: the 200-acre LORAN station parcel in Sconset decommissioned by the Coast Guard in 2010; and the 100-acre Federal Aviation Administration property in Madaket at the other end of the island declared surplus by the government in 2009.

“People always ask, ‘are you done?’ Not really, but the major parcels we’ve set our sights on, the efforts in the last 10 years by all the conservation groups on the island, came to a head with the purchase of Norwood Farm,” Lentowski said. “We’re down to a very short list. It’s amazing how successful we’ve all been. People from off-island look at Nantucket, and say, ‘how did you do it?’

Like any nonprofit, however, the Foundation faces its fair share of hurdles, chief among them these days raising money for continued acquisitions, maintenance and upkeep of its properties; and raising awareness of the need for appropriate stewardship. It relies solely on donations for its funding, receiving no public money and holding just one annual fundraiser. The Race for Open Space, scheduled for July 13 this year, is organized by its Associates, a group of younger adult volunteers.

“It’s relatively easy to acquire land, but getting people to understand the need for stewardship is more dif- ficult. It’s giving people a sense of responsibility about using the property. We need to bring in the next set of stewards,” Lentowski said.

“Up until the late 1980s, the vast majority of Foundation acquisitions were by virtue of gifts made. Seventy-five percent of what the Foundation owns today is the result of gifts. But property became so valuable, people couldn’t do it anymore. The balance of our properties over the last 20 years or so was acquired by purchase, but purchases very carefully chosen,” he said.

“We don’t have the capacity to raise a huge amount of money. It used to be we could raise $1 million a year, put it in a land fund, then go to the owner, and work with them. That was the case with the Jensen family. We were working with them for 30 years.”

The field-station campaign was a different story.

“That came as somewhat of a surprise, but we un- derstood if we didn’t move when the opportunity presented itself, the university would have sold the property. So we raised $22 million,” Lentowski said.

It’s all about people. The Foundation depends on its members and those who respect the island’s natural beauty to do what’s right for Nantucket.

“We rely on people to understand what our mission is all about. Protecting land just doesn’t happen all by itself. Somebody’s got to pay for it,” Lentowski said.

In the end, all the work has been worth it.

"The original founders of the Foundation, and those who have supported it through the years, visitors and islanders alike, have established a remarkable and unique legacy for all of us. Nantucket would be a very different place today without the Foundation,” said David Poor, president of its board of trustees. “Our challenge is to ensure that we don’t take it for granted, and continue to build on that legacy through science, habitat-maintenance and education, and just the wonderful pleasure of enjoying our many iconic properties that create the unique Nantucket experience."

Lentowski agreed.

“When I was in high school and college, I had the good fortune of spending time on the Cape. Seeing how fast things were changing there, you could get a sense in spite of Nantucket’s remoteness, the kind of pressures that would come to bear on a community with so many natural assets – the beaches, harbors, places to recreate,” he said. “Things were changing that rapidly on the Cape in the late 1960s, and you could see the same things happening here if people became blasé. The Foundation was later joined by the Land Bank, the Land Council and other organizations that were created to protect open spaces in specific areas like Sconset, Madaket, Great Point, Coskata – and that was to everybody’s good fortune.

“Those of us who live here, who visit, we’re the beneficiaries of all that work. Nantucket is not going to change all that radically. You can go back to the same place 20 years later, and relive the whole experience over again. There are very few places left where you can do that. It’s nice to know there’s a constancy of the landscape here.” 

Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today, and the assistant editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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