Viewsheds: protect, restore or ignore?

Tue, 12/07/2021 - 8:15am

“We discovered an island triangular in form, distant ten leagues from the continent ... full of hills, covered with trees, much populated judging by the continuous fires along all the surrounding shore which we saw they made...” -Giovanni da Verrazano, Explorer for the King of France, April 1524, as quoted in Robert Downie’s “Block Island the Land.”
The first European settlers moved to Block Island in 1661 when there was an “abundance of timber” for at least 60 years. “Oak, hickory, elm, ash, cedar, and pine were abundant,” according to Livermore’s “History of Block Island.”

These rich forests were tapped for trees for building materials, ship masts, fences, and most commonly, fuel. It has been estimated that it only took the settlers 150 years to almost totally deforest the island.

“So long has the destitution of native timber here existed that when the writer came upon the island in 1874, not an inhabitant knew where, or when the forest trees were standing,” Livermore wrote.
Livermore posits that if it hadn’t been for the presence of peat for fuel, the island would have been abandoned as incapable of supporting life.
Old photographs and post cards show a land barren of trees as late as the 1970s, with wide rolling fields and nary a tree save for a few up around a homestead.
November is the month when the Block Island Land Trust reviews it stewardship plans for the coming year before issuing its invitations to bid. The exercise provides an opportunity for reflection and re-evaluation of what works, what doesn’t, and what just needs to be done. For instance, this year’s higher-than-usual rainfall amounts have led to growth that is overtaking paths and needs cutting back.
Sometimes decisions are influenced by requests from others with various concerns.
So when Joe Loya, on the behalf of the Block Island Residents’ Association, came to the Land Trust meeting on Nov. 19 to further the mission of that organization to “preservation and/or restoration of the island’s signature viewsheds,” he was met by a bit of push-back.
BIRA had sent a letter via email to the Land Trust explaining that the group had formed an advisory committee “focused on the identification and preservation/resto-
ration of Block Island’s iconic viewsheds.” In that email, 11 areas were identified, as were the stonewalls, in general.
Loya said that BIRA had conducted a “broad-based survey” and “this was one of the issues that was important to people.”
Scott Comings, Associate State Director of The Nature Conservancy said “There’s 800 houses there now,” referring to the landscape.
“I’m not sure what the goal is,” said Block Island Conservancy President Dorrie Napoleone. “Restore the view to 20 years ago? Fifty years ago?”
“When it was all forested – pre-settlers?” asked BILT Stewardship Coordinator Harold “Turtle” Hatfield.
“I will grant you that there is an education process [for BIRA]” said Loya. “The goal is to improve viewsheds.”

To many, that is coded language for cutting down trees, and BIRA’s email did not elaborate on which properties needed restoration versus which needed preservation.

When The Block Island Times reached out to Loya he responded that: “Over the past 20 or 30 years there has been a dramatic change to many of our viewsheds, such as Rodman’s Hollow, Fresh Pond, and Beane Point. Many tracts of open space, including Rodman’s Hollow, for example, which consisted of grasslands and bushes, are now overgrown with invasive and non-invasive trees and high bushes. As a result, these signature BI viewsheds are not as attractive and are much
less scenic than they used to be.”
“I feel like we have this discussion every five years,” said Comings, who earlier had explained that when an area was clear-cut, it left room for invasive species to move in and take over.
There are always new people coming to the island, said Barbara MacMullan and that they needed to be educated periodically as to the roles of the different conservation organizations. “Viewsheds are only part of our mission,” she said.

“And it’s not in our mission,” said Comings.

One of the things BIRA is trying to do is determine who owns and has jurisdiction over the properties on its list, which includes a mix of federal, state, and privately owned property.
Ironically, the discussion came just after another in which the Land Trust discussed just where to plant four trees as apart of its tree replacement program. The group occasionally gets a request from someone to remove a tree from their “viewshed” and the conservation organizations came up with the replacement program a couple of years ago in response.
It should be noted that not all requests will be honored, but if they agree to cut down a tree, the requester must pay money that will fund the planting of replacement trees elsewhere.

Hatfield said he wanted to plant four such replacement trees and various locations where they could go were discussed before it was decided to plant two apple trees at the “Valenti” property near Dodge Cemetery, and two London Plane trees along Old Mill Road.