MAXWELL:  Martha’s Vineyard models conservation

6/5/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

All right, do not start laughing. This column is about nature _ piping plovers. You have not heard of piping plovers? Well, let me tell you about them.

They are shorebirds, cute little creatures, in fact, and have been classified as threatened by federal and state agencies. Depending on the season, their upperparts are pale gray to brown; legs, orange to bright yellow; rump, white; bill, orange and black; neck-ring (depending on gender), thin, grayish or brown or black.

They live on coastal beaches and on the shores of the Great Lakes. Their call is a whistled “peep” or a two-note “peep-low.” Adults grow to about 7 inches in length. They are found in Florida most of the year except for June and July, when they migrate north, some to Martha’s Vineyard. Their flocks are rarely more than six birds, and they seldom, if ever, breed in the Sunshine State.

I am writing specifically about the piping plovers of Martha’s Vineyard because their relationship with island residents holds real environmental lessons and some positive, unintended consequences for Florida.

One of my bird-loving friends, a Virginia-based biologist, who summers on Chappaquiddick Island, on the shore of Cape Poge Bay, keeps me informed about a 12-year effort to bring plovers back to the Vineyard and its environs. The campaign is led by the Massachusetts Audubon Society and Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation.

For many years, plovers have been disappearing on the East Coast, and the Vineyard project is one that is successfully reversing that trend. Because plovers nest on beaches, depositing their eggs in depressions of exposed sand, they are especially vulnerable to human activity and animal predation.

Bird lovers persuaded island officials and ordinary citizens to take several measures, some simple and others drastic, to protect plover nests. Although some Vineyarders are angry, they are cooperating on restrictions as to when they can drive their vehicles on the beaches. A big victory is keeping destructive four-wheel vehicles out of certain sensitive places altogether during busy summer months.

Signs that educate the public have been posted, and fencing has been erected to protect vulnerable areas. Everyone agrees that the biggest coup was getting nearly 40 private land owners to join the campaign. These owners limit where people can travel, they volunteer to monitor nesting sites, count hatchlings and they donate money to the program.

As a result, the program can pay two full-time employees and expenses for volunteers.

Much of the work involves timing and attention to detail. Off-road vehicles, for example, are permitted to use the beaches when birds are not nesting. But vehicular and foot traffic is only part of the problem. Volunteers also must erect barriers that keep predators, such as crows, gulls and skunks, away from the plovers’ eggs.

Island conservationists say the Vineyard campaign is teaching residents about the complex relationship between people and the environment. People are learning that being stewards of their surroundings pays off in practical ways.

Conservationists report that the immediate goal to protect plover nests by keeping out off-road vehicles protects the beach itself and permits erosion-blocking plants to flourish. All of the beaches that have plover populations are seeing a renewal of dunes. Some areas appear as they did a generation ago because people have stopped degrading them, all for the sake of the plovers.

I said at the outset that Florida could learn from the Martha’s Vineyard example, that we, too, could reap some positive, unintended consequences by protecting selected flora and fauna.

Indeed, we Floridians, like Vineyarders, could use a healthy dose of keeping our hands off our beaches and their precious resources. For starters, we could enact real growth management, not the ideas that Gov. Jeb Bush trots out each election season that mock growth management. We need to stop building on every open space on our coasts.

I was on Martha’s Vineyard last summer and saw signs of the attitude shift toward protecting the great outdoors. The people with whom I fished and talked understand the importance of investing in nature, of protecting their sea oats and sea wheat. In fact, the island’s go-slow character and its sense of stewardship are blessings.

We here in Florida, while we have beautiful, fragile coasts, have a from-somewhere-else relationship with the environment. Land is a thing to be cleared and paved _ not a treasure to be protected. Perhaps conservationists should be glad that piping plovers do not breed here.