by Dr. Sarah Treanor Bois, PhD
Director of Research & Education at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation
We love to boast about the open space on our island. We are so fortunate for the early insight of those who began preserving land so long ago with the idea of conserving the island’s natural landscapes for the benefit of the whole community. With more than 50% of Nantucket’s land mass under some kind of conservation, there is so much natural beauty to explore. From rolling terrain of the Middle Moors, to the wetlands of Squam, the grasslands of the south shore, access to our beautiful coastline, and the natural wonder of our barrier beach system of Coatue; we have much to be thankful for.
The organizations that own these lands each have their own missions and guiding principals. There is overlap among some, for sure, but each is specific to the organization’s primary focus. For example, the Nantucket Land Bank’s mission “Conservation, recreation and agriculture for the benefit of the public in perpetuity” has a focus that includes recreation and public access to water. The Nantucket Conservation Foundation (NCF) is more focused on the overall conservation of resources by “permanently conserving, maintaining, and managing natural areas and habitats and to encourage an appreciation of and interest in the island’s natural resources.” The Linda Loring Nature Foundation (LLNF) mission is place-based, focusing on preserving the “…biological diversity of its 275- acre property on Nantucket and connects people of all ages to nature through outstanding environmental education and research.” These missions have distinctions, but they also compliment each other. Our conservation groups work together to protect Nantucket Island as a whole, while upholding their own missions.
The other thing we love about these organizations is that they are locally based. Islanders prefer taking care of their own. Yes, there are some state-wide organizations with important land, but the majority land owners are island-based. That’s important considering our unique ethic. Our beaches are free, and so are our trails, as is parking at any trail head. So much of what is monetized off-island is free and open here. It’s the Nantucket way.
Some organization like LLNF have additional conservation restrictions on our land listed via a CR. This legally binding document goes above and beyond a mission statement to decree what can and cannot happen on the land. As a wildlife refuge, for example, LLNF doesn’t allow dogs or bicycles, as well as some other prohibitions. It’s not always popular, but that’s on the list of restrictions in order to protect ground-nesting birds and other wildlife. LLNF trails are open for passive recreation, and all are welcome to enjoy the property sunup to sundown. Any restrictions regarding use and activities are prescribed for the protection of resources and our jobs of upholding the mission and the legally binding Conservation Restrictions.
People don’t need to know the details of such restrictions (CRs) or every aspect of a strategic plan unless they’re particularly interested. That is where the leadership and staff of an organization comes in. Along with the board, they work to uphold the mission and steward the land. This can take many forms, mowing fire breaks, maintaining trails, planting trees, building docks, and, yes, even occassionally closing roads. Behind all of these decisions are well thought out plans established in order to achieve various management goals. None of it taken lightly or done impulsively.
As an ecologist, I spent a lot of time in school learning about conservation principals, methods, research, and details about flora and fauna. We learn about threats to our native biodiversity and how to combat them, as well as how to enhance our native biodiversity and habitats all in the name of protecting our ecosystems and our natural resources.
What we didn’t learn very much about, but something we as conservation professionals contend with every day, is the management of people. Sometimes it’s just additional signage needed to steer someone away from a trail under repair. Other times, it’s getting people to keep their dogs on leashes to protect the nesting birds. Most people understand and want to do the right thing. It’s when a few people take actions or ignore signage that create consequences that affect many more.
Of all of the open space and conservation land on Nantucket, the majority of the more than 9,000 acres is actually private property. And, as such, it is a privilege, not a right, to access, use, and recreate on these lands. We forget that as we park in the lot to head to Ladies Beach, take a walk with the dogs and grab some poop bags, and throw trash in the can provided. It’s how we do things here: we take care of each other. And that goes for the land as well. Do unto others, right?
Except when we don’t.
Trash and landscape debris tossed onto conservation land, out-of-control beach parties littering the sand, beach fires leaving rusted nails hidden in the sand, and off-road drivers leaving scars on the landscape for years are just a few of the overuse and misuse activities that happen here regularly. Not everyone abuses the privileges of Nantucket, but the actions of those who do result in consequences for everyone.
It’s not an inalienable right to use someone else’s property as you like. We are so fortunate that our beaches are free, the parking is free, trash cans, and trails…all free. But by abusing what is a privilege for us to use, conservation professionals must step in and take action. Our obligation is to the land, the conservation ethic, the mission of the organization, and the wishes of the families who entrusted the lands to us.
It’s true that nature is for all. But nature shouldn’t be exploited and used in every way for people to feel connected to it. There are still trails to enjoy, roads to meander, and docks to sit at and fish.
The classic “Tragedy of the Commons” describes a situation where numerous independent individuals enjoy unfettered access to a finite, valuable resource— a stretch of conservation land, for example. With this unfettered access, some will tend to over-use it, and may end up destroying its value altogether. To exercise voluntary restraint is not a rational choice for any one individual—if they did, the others would merely take over that use—yet the predictable result is a tragedy for all. As we are want to say: Nantucket is different. Historically, our island held sheep in a commons. This practice wasn’t without problems, but islanders worked together to make it a success. We can do that again. Remind each other what is important and take care of our land.
As Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
Let us all treat our open space with love and respect ensuring that this valuable resource remains open for all.