Richard Verney -July 2008
A conversation with the president of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation
by: Erin Chandler
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
If you’ve ever walked the moors on an August morning just as the light haze begins to burn off, you can relate to Richard Verney, president of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, when he says how important it is to preserve Nantucket’s character.
Since its establishment in 1963, the Foundation has undergone an enormous evolution. What started out as a quiet organization founded by nine individuals focused primarily on land acquisition soon blossomed into an expansive organization that now owns about 8,700 acres: roughly 30 percent of Nantucket’s land.
The 1990s marked the beginning of one of the most significant stages of change the foundation has yet experienced, and it was no coincidence that it also marked the time around which Verney first lent his hand to the foundation’s mission in 1994.
As George A. Fowlkes, a long-time trustee and former president of the Foundation said, “It was Richard who opened the doors to change.”
“Probably the biggest change (in the organization) happened in the early 1990s,” Verney said. “The board realized that there were not that many large parcels of open space left, and that eventually, we’d get to the point where we or other conservation organizations had acquired all of the land.”
Come late spring or early summer, perhaps the most popular topic of conversation and probably the most predominant item that tops the “to-do” lists for many is maintaining that unruly garden or tending to the lawn. Now, if you can imagine owning nearly one-third of the island, you can only begin to conceptualize the upkeep that would require.
“To own 30 percent of the island is a pretty big legacy to have,” Fowlkes said. “We have more neighbors than anybody!”
And so came the transition from an organization concentrating on land acquisition to one more concerned with being good stewards of the land that they had been fortunate enough to acquire. Putting their land-acquisition efforts largely on the back burner, the Foundation pushed ahead into uncharted territory.
This drastic change would mean conducting what Verney referred to as “scientific resource inventories” in order to determine what type of ecosystems existed on Foundation properties, which ones should remain, which ones needed to be protected, and how best to create management plans to achieve its strategies.
In a way, the new focus was a two-headed beast. In order to conduct the inventories, the Foundation would have to bring in scientists able to conduct the research, and logistically speaking, in order to carry out the management plans that would develop from these inventories, the Foundation would need to undergo yet another expansion.
It was at this point that the organization needed to be run more like a business, executive director Jim Lentowski said.
As luck would have it, the Foundation had Verney, who still holds his position as chairman and chief executive officer of Monadnock Paper Mills in New Hampshire. In short, he knows how to run a business.
Verney helped organize the Foundation’s new focus as a board member, then later as president beginning in 1999, and all the way through to the present day, where its properties are alive as ever with teams of researchers.
“Richard has brought a degree of professionalism to the Conservation Foundation that is unusual for a nonprofit group,” said vice president David Poor.
Lentowski agreed. “Richard really brought his business skills and experience into the organization to help it become more compartmentalized.”
But Verney recounts his achievements rather more modestly. To him, it was all about re-structuring the Foundation into something that could run itself efficiently, a movement away from the “one-man show” that it was for many years.
“I tried to re-invigorate the committee structure. I knew because of my off-island commitment that I wasn’t going to be able to spend as much time as George did,” he said of Fowlkes. “I wanted to let people on committees oversee various things in the organization. The executive director could no longer do everything.”
And to Verney’s credit, the swift change has been enormously successful thus far. “Richard’s great legacy is taking an organization that has always been a wonderful embodiment of Nantucket and making it a very smooth operation by securing a lot of things that none of us like to do,” Poor said.
One of the most recent research projects involved the implementation of sheep-grazing on Squam Farm, which is now in its fourth year. This research project attempts to determine whether or not grazing could be a form of land management, particularly whether the sheep will eat the scrub oak that grows throughout many areas of the island. Recent reports indicate that sheep born and bred on Nantucket will indeed eat scrub oak, and grazing may be a very useful, and easy, form of land management.
“Hopefully by the end of the year we’ll be able to draw some conclusions as to what sheep can do in the area of land management,” Verney said. “Plus they’re cute,” he added with a chuckle.
For Verney, the prospect of truly understanding the land the Foundation owns and working to keep it in its natural state is the greatest part of its work. “It’s exciting,” he said. “What we’re finding is that because Nantucket is 30 miles out to sea, it is immune to a lot of the environmental pressures that are posing a problem on the mainland. There are a lot of flora and fauna here that are unique.”
Take Nantucket’s sandplain grasslands. The species is globally endangered because it exists in such small quantities, but the vast majority of it can be found on Nantucket. This is one of the many exciting aspects of exploring the land the foundation owns, Lentowski said, but also the one that imposes the most responsibility.
“There are things we live with on Nantucket that we take for granted,” he said. “It’s the science of finding out what it is we now own, and then figuring out how to manage it in the future so that people will forever be able to enjoy it. It’s kind of a balancing act between letting people enjoy it, but at the same time saving this resource that is globally endangered.”
It’s a challenging task to prepare an ever-expanding organization so that it can take the necessary steps to keep steady this fragile equilibrium.
Verney was more than up for the challenge, Lentowski said. “Richard is fastidious. He always brings his experience and work attitude to the Foundation.”
Poor agreed. “He has effectively prepared the organization for a future of reaching out to the community.”
But perhaps above all, as voiced by many, the most important aspect that Verney brings to the foundation’s mission is his true love and passion for the island’s well-being.
“Richard has a life-long love for the island. When he made a commitment to the Foundation it became his number-one priority,” Fowlkes said.
Erin Chandler is a freelance writer.