A man stands in a grassland on Martha's Vineyard, on the left side the grass is brown, on the right, it is green.
A Committed Steward: Mike Whittemore, land steward for TNC in Massachusetts, stands between native sandplain grassland that is under restoration (to his right) and former agricultural land. © James Miller/TNC

Stories in Massachusetts

Restoring Imperiled Grasslands on Martha's Vineyard

The Island is one of the last remaining strongholds of sandplain grasslands, an important habitat for rare species.

On a warm morning in July, eight volunteers came to The Nature Conservancy’s Bamford Preserve to plant butterflyweed, a native wildflower. Under the guidance of Martha’s Vineyard-based Land Steward Mike Whittemore, the volunteers picked up trowels, pin flags and trays of butterflyweed plugs to plant. The breeze coming off the ocean rippled through the grasses as the volunteers spread out and got to work.

The planting is part of TNC’s larger effort to protect, restore and expand sandplain grassland ecosystems across their range, increasing biodiversity and securing resilient lands in the face of climate change. The habitat supports many rare plant and animal species but is becoming increasingly rare around the world—Martha’s Vineyard is one of the last remaining strongholds.

Restoring a Unique Habitat Saving some of the last remaining sandplain grassland habitats in the world on Martha's Vineyard through native grass and wildflower plantings, controlled burns and conservation partnerships.

A History of Conservation on Martha's Vineyard

Over the past 35 years, TNC has helped protect more than 1,500 acres of land on Martha’s Vineyard, with a focus on conserving, managing and expanding coastal plain heathland and grassland habitat. Securing these resilient lands will protect rare plants in the face of climate change, as coastal sand- and silt-based habitats are especially vulnerable. Management of these systems also maintains historical open landscapes and reduces fire risk for Island communities.

TNC is an authority on coastal plain heathland and grassland research and co-founded the Sandplain Grassland Network, a project that pulled together scientists and land managers across the Northeast to create a guidebook for implementing innovative restoration to save this habitat. In 2019, we were awarded a $25,900 grant from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife with the town of Edgartown to expand and manage Bamford Preserve and nearby high-quality grassland at Katama Plains.

Planting Native Species at Bamford Preserve

The 60-acre Bamford Preserve in Edgartown was once a thriving sandplain grassland before it was converted for agriculture. TNC purchased it in 2007—in the largest land deal on the Island by monetary value—and has been working to restore it for the last 14 years by planting native species like little bluestem grass, butterflyweed and more, while managing the land through mowing and prescribed fire. Beginning in 2007, TNC and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole conducted research on the best restoration practices for the site. Now, we’re applying what we learned. 

“Since acquiring the land, we have planted hundreds of pounds of native grass seed at Bamford Preserve. Our efforts are beginning to show—the grasses filled in the landscape this year,” says Whittemore. “It’s exciting to see that the research that TNC and partners have done over the years through the Sandplain Grassland Network is supporting our success.”

Three people kneel in the grass planting seedlings, with trees and blue skies in the background.
Volunteer Power Volunteers help plant butterflyweed at Bamford Preserve in July 2021, as part of the second phase of restoring the sandplain grassland habitat. © Loren Dowd/TNC
Close up of four clusters of small orange flowers with grasses and leaves in the background. An orange and black butterfly is perched on one cluster.
Planting Wildflowers Butterflyweed a native wildflower to sandplain grasslands on Martha's Vineyard and supports pollinators and other species. © Loren Dowd/TNC

Summer 2021 marked the second phase of restoration after planting grasses: planting wildflowers. They not only provide pops of color and diversify the landscape, they support native pollinators like monarch butterflies, as well as meadowlarks and many other species. Thanks to the hard work of volunteers and seedlings from Polly Hill Arboretum, 1,000 butterflyweed plugs are now planted along two edges of the Preserve.

Sustaining the Grassland

Over the next few years, these native grass and wildflower species will put down roots and spread across the landscape. However, sandplain grasslands require constant management to recover and persist. To remove the non-native species, Whittemore will conduct regular mowing, as well as controlled burns.

He says: “We expect that a well-timed spring burn will ignite years of seed planted in the soil—fire helps these native species grow and thrive—and reduce the non-native cool season grasses left over from agriculture, really helping to transform Bamford Preserve.”

A grassland with blue partly cloudy skies in the background. The grass on the left is yellow green (not restored) and the grass on the right is green (under restoration).
A grassland with blue partly cloudy skies in the background. The grass on the left is brown (not restored) and the grass on the right is green (under restoration).
2019 to 2021 TNC is restoring Bamford Preserve back to sandplain grassland ecosystem. The area on the left has not yet been restored, and on the right is in the process of restoration. Hundreds of pounds of native grass seed have been planted in the restoration area and they are beginning to grow in. © James Miller/TNC; Loren Dowd/TNC

The hope is that a few years down the line, Bamford Preserve will look like its neighbor, Katama Airpark, one of the best examples of sandplain grassland in the region that is also managed by TNC.

“It’s important to be able to restore the places that could be gone completely if organizations like TNC weren’t able to protect them,” says Sharon Britton, one of the volunteers at the planting. “The pressure to use the land for development is so great and people don’t appreciate that what might look boring is actually what is so essential about the Vineyard.”

A man kneels in the grass holding two plants.
Mike Whittemore Butterflyweed Mike Whittemore, land steward on Martha's Vineyard, holds fully grown and seedling butterflyweed plants. They were planted at Bamford Preserve as part of ongoing restoration. © Loren Dowd/TNC

Get to Know Mike Whittemore

How long have you been on Martha’s Vineyard?

I’ve been living and working here for The Nature Conservancy since early summer 2018, and I consider myself incredibly lucky. I grew up in Framingham, Massachusetts, and when I was a kid, my dad brought me here many times to go striper fishing. I’ve always been drawn back. This is a very special place.

What are your responsibilities?

I help manage TNC’s lands on Cape Cod and the islands. Here, that includes about 1,000 acres of fee-owned lands and 600 acres of conservation restrictions—places where TNC has legal management responsibility. I also manage the Hoft Farm Field Station and volunteers and implement ecological restoration.

What about TNC’s work on Martha's Vineyard surprises people?

Our ecological restoration work. Many people know there’s a lot of conservation on the island. But TNC is distinct because part of our mission is to restore some of the open habitats and species that were more common in the past, and we do a lot of that here.

What's something you're really excited about?

Restoring Bamford Preserve. We’re seeing really good results restoring this to sandplain grassland. Like so much of the work I’ve done since I came to the island, this work is built upon great things done by other TNC folks before me. 

What do you do when you’re not working?

I love meeting people on the island and learning about the culture. I just signed up for Big Brothers Big Sisters here. I kayak almost any chance I get; I’ll kayak out to the Elizabeth Islands, places that aren’t as easily accessible. My other favorite thing is to head up to the White Mountains to hike the 67 New England peaks! I also enjoy visiting my family in Framingham on the way.    

A gray shingled house sits on a grassy hill with a solar panel array to the left of it and trees and blue sky in the background.
Hoft Farm TNC both carries out ecological restoration and hosts conservation interns, volunteers and scientists here. © James Miller/TNC

Hoft Farm Research Station

TNC has been housing conservation interns, volunteers, scientists and staff from other organizations at Hoft Farm at a subsidized rate for more than 20 years. Short-term housing affordability is a challenge for those working on the Island. TNC also hosts Sierra Club volunteers to help carry out stewardship and restoration. It’s an important resource for conservation on the Island.