Officials want it to stay Nomans Land

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / July 12, 2010

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NOMANS LAND — Three miles south of Martha’s Vineyard, this island of dense brush, rocky beaches, and squawking birdlife is aptly named. No one has lived here for nearly 60 years, and the public is banned from its 628 acres.

Now, after spending $100,000 on a 15-year plan for Nomans Land, federal officials want it to stay that way.

The Fish & Wildlife Service has recommended that Nomans Land be protected as federal wilderness, meaning that if the public wants a glimpse of this National Wildlife Refuge, options could be limited to a virtual tour on the Web or a magnifying scope on the Vineyard.

The island, used as an aerial bombing range from 1943 to 1996, is pocked with unexploded munitions that make one of Southern New England’s last wild places a potentially deadly hazard.

“I think it’s important to have a few places that are completely prohibited from the public,’’ said Stephanie Koch, a US Fish & Wildlife Service biologist, who walked the beach at Nomans Land recently in search of a piping plover nest. “I know that’s a hard sell for a lot of people.’’

It’s also a reality that four Navy sweeps of the island since 1997 have not altered. Although munitions have been found, defused, and removed from the surface, an undetermined amount of bombs lie underground and undetected.

“The result could be catastrophic,’’ Koch said of public access to Nomans Land.

But this nightmare for human visitors is a blessing for its avian guests. Due to its undisturbed nature and shortage of predators, Nomans Land is an important stop on the Atlantic Flyway for songbirds migrating south as far as South America.

Northern harriers, oystercatchers, roseate terns, catbirds, double-crested cormorants, and even piping plovers are a few of the many species that the Fish & Wildlife Service monitors in roughly six visits to the island each year.

A few stone walls remain from homes and farms that once dotted the island, and a small family cemetery lies perilously close to an eroding 20-foot cliff on the northern shore. Otherwise, Nomans Land is a deserted place.

“When I’m out here, this feels as much like wilderness as any other place I’ve been in New England,’’ said Koch, as she savored a 360-degree ocean view from the island’s 110-foot summit.

To that end, the Fish & Wildlife Service has recommended that Nomans Land be protected, which would preserve its natural, minimally managed solitude. Another option, which the service has offered but not recommended, would maintain the current oversight, which provides slightly more on-site management than for wilderness.

A third possible option, among other changes, would expand federal management of Nomans, possibly clear additional trails, and develop a partnership with the Wampanoag tribe on Martha’s Vineyard that would allow limited access for cultural and ceremonial uses.

Bettina Washington, historic preservation officer for the Aquinnah-based tribe, said an expanded Wampanoag connection with the island would be welcome.

“Our wish is, once again, at least to go over and pay our respects,’’ said Washington, who has never visited Nomans Land. Wampanoag remains are believed to be buried on the island, which the tribe’s oral history says was created when Moshup, an ancestral giant, tossed a crab into the ocean.

The origin of the island’s name is shrouded in mystery, but some evidence points to a reference to Tequenomans, an ancient Wampanoag sachem.

Bartholomew Gosnold, an English explorer, sighted the island in 1602, and more than three centuries of habitation followed until the Crane family sold Nomans Land to the Navy in 1952.

The island, nominally part of the Town of Chilmark, was transferred to the Department of the Interior in 1998.

The danger of buried munitions has led to fishing restrictions, as well as the ban on public access. Still, two unauthorized visitors walked the island after they anchored offshore.

Roger Hoffman praised the beauty of the place. “It’s a privilege to see it,’’ Hoffman told Koch as they passed on an inland trail.

That privilege, however, led to a $100 fine levied by a Fish & Wildlife Service officer.

The 15-year proposal for Nomans Land is among the plans required for National Wildlife Refuges across the country, Koch said, and will be finalized this fall before being submitted to the Northeast regional director of the Fish & Wildlife Service.

After approval, Nomans Land almost certainly will remain an enigma to the public.

“It really does feel like you’re on your own island,’’ said Jason St. Sauver, a biologist who visited recently. “It feels like no one’s been out there for hundreds of years.’’

MacQuarrie can be reached at

Correction: Because of an editing error, this story misspelled the name of the uninhabited island located south of Martha’s Vineyard.

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